Incomplete spinal injury

11 November 2021

An incomplete spinal cord injury means an individual will retain some sensory or motor function below the level of the injury and can usually go on and make a reasonable recovery.

It is estimated that around 2,500 people in the UK are diagnosed with a spinal cord injury every year. Due to the improved understanding and treatment of spinal cord injuries, most are now classed as “incomplete”.

Read on to find out more about incomplete spinal cord injuries.

What is an incomplete spinal cord injury?

If you suffer an incomplete spinal cord injury, you will still have some feeling below the point at which the spinal cord is damaged. This is the fundamental difference between a complete and incomplete spinal cord injury. In a complete spinal cord injury, the nerves below the point of the injury cannot communicate with the brain at all.

A person with an incomplete spinal cord injury may be able to move one limb more than another or may have more function on one side of the body than the other. Even if someone experiences complete paralysis, an incomplete spinal cord injury prognosis can be good if there is still feeling in the muscles below the point of the injury.

In some cases, people who suffer such an injury can go on to make quite a rapid recovery.

What are the types of incomplete spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury will be classed as incomplete in two possible circumstances:

  1. The trauma suffered is not severe enough to completely cut or sever the spinal cord.
  2. The injury sustained may be severe, but not so bad that it interferes with the nerve function. It’s possible to break bones in the neck, for example, but there will be no loss of function if the spinal cord is unaffected.

In addition, an incomplete spinal cord injury can take many different forms depending on the location. This can include:

  • Anterior cord syndrome - where the front of the spinal cord is damaged, affecting feelings of pain, touch and temperature.
  • Central cord syndrome - where the damage is to the centre of the cord, leading to loss of movement and sensation in the legs and more severely in the arms.
  • Posterior cord syndrome - a rare form of injury where damage is to the rear of the spinal cord, causing problems with co-ordination and the ability to sense touch.
  • Cauda equina lesion - when the collection of nerves at the end of the spinal cord are compressed, which can cause lost sensation and issues with bowel or bladder control.
  • Brown-Sequard syndrome - another rare form that only impacts one side of the spinal cord, which affects both movement and sensation on that side of the body.

What causes an incomplete spinal cord injury?

Falls and road traffic accidents are the reason for most spinal cord injuries in the UK, according to data from Spinal Research. Often, such injuries are the result of preventable accidents – and can be the fault of someone else. Other reasons include sporting incidents or accidents at work, as well as criminal assault.

Spinal injuries – and how they should be handled in the immediate aftermath of an accident – are now increasingly better understood. Ironically, advances in the treatment of a spinal cord injury mean that it’s more likely that an injury will be incomplete, and the chances of a faster and fuller recovery are higher.

Why are incomplete spinal cord injuries more common?

For most people, it’s how their spinal cord injury is dealt with in the first place that makes it incomplete – not the injury itself.

If you are involved in an accident that injures your spinal cord, paramedics and other emergency services will take particular care to avoid any sudden or violent movements. In many cases, this will involve protecting the spine by ensuring full in-line spinal immobilisation either through the use of spinal  immobilisation devices, or manually stabilising the head.

The aim of this is to lower the risk of there being any further damage to your spinal cord.

A medical team may also act if there is a need to reduce any swelling around the injured area. In both situations, this can substantially lower the risk of the devastating paralysis that would result from a complete injury. Instead, this increases the likelihood of an incomplete spinal cord injury.

What are incomplete spinal cord injury symptoms/signs?

The signs or symptoms of an incomplete spinal cord injury will depend on its location and extent. If you’re involved in an accident, any of the following could indicate damage to the spinal cord:

  • Loss of movement, coordination or strength in your limbs
  • A tingling or loss of sensation in hands, fingers, toes or feet
  • Mobility and balance issues
  • An inability to control your bladder or bowel
  • Severe back, neck or head pain or pressure
  • Difficulties with your breathing

If you suffer an incomplete spinal cord injury in an accident, it’s important to remember that you can still retain sensation in your arms and legs – even if you’re unable to move them.

What are the rehabilitation and treatment options?

The treatment and rehabilitation options will differ on a case-by-case basis. This is because each type of injury is unique to the person involved.

In the immediate aftermath of an accident, someone with an incomplete spinal cord injury might need surgery. This could be to stabilise the spine or remove anything pressing against the cord.

In most cases, however, bed rest is the most effective treatment option as it provides the spinal cord with the time it needs to repair itself – and ensure as full a recovery as possible. This can take as long as 3-9 months, according to the Spinal Injuries Association.

Once a patient is allowed out of bed, there will be further assessment to work out what steps are needed next. This will depend on how much sensation is retained or recovered. Some incomplete spinal cord injury rehabilitation methods can include physiotherapy or occupational therapy, for example.

Scientist are constantly looking for new ways to help the body repair the nerves following a spinal cord injury and a new drug has been developed that could encourage the regrowth of spinal cord nerves. 

How long can it take to recover?

For incomplete spinal cord injuries, the recovery time is likely to be a slow, steady process. This is due to the fragile nature of the spinal cord. But it’s not unknown for a person to recover from a less severe injury in a matter of months.

In many cases, however, it can take up to two years for someone to recover as fully as possible. After this point, it’s rare – although not impossible – to regain any further movement or feeling.

How can Shoosmiths help if you suffer an incomplete spinal cord injury?

It can be hard to come to terms with the impact of an incomplete spinal cord injury – especially if you experience a significant loss of movement or feeling. This can be made even worse when your injury is the result of an accident that was someone else’s fault.

That’s where Shoosmiths can help.

Our personal injury specialists can help you claim the compensation you need. This can be used to cover the costs of your medical treatment or any future care or modification needs. Making a claim can also help cover any current and future income you’ve lost by not being able to work.

We can also help with your incomplete spinal cord injury rehabilitation needs. Thanks to our close partnerships with organisations such as the Spinal Injury Association, we can connect you with a wide range of support groups and services.

To find out more or talk about your experience in confidence with a member of our team, get in touch with us today. Call 0370 086 8687 or send us a message.



This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024

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