Many professionals classify an acute spinal cord injury into one of two categories: a complete spinal cord injury and an incomplete spinal cord injury. A complete spinal cord injury results in a total loss of feeling and motion below the injury site. If there is some sensation or motion below the injury, it is usually classified as an incomplete injury. Within the incomplete category are often five more subcategories: anterior cord syndrome, central cord syndrome, posterior cord syndrome, Brown-Sequard syndrome, and cauda equina lesions.
If an injury results in bruising or tearing of the spinal cord, a patient is said to have an acute spinal cord injury. Bruising of the cord is often more common than tearing. With a complete spinal cord injury, a patient has no motor ability or sensation below the injury. Depending on where the injury occurs, paraplegia or quadriplegia, also called tetraplegia, may result. An incomplete acute spinal cord injury is often more common than a complete injury and allow some feeling or motion below the injury site.
An incomplete injury is often classified according to what part of the cord is damaged. Anterior, posterior, and central cord syndromes refer to injuries of the front, back, and center of the spinal cord, respectively. Brown-Sequard syndrome refers to an injury to the left or right side. Lastly, a cauda equina lesion is an injury to the nerves between the first and second lumbar regions. Often, a doctor will have to wait until the injury’s initial distress has passed — usually six to eight weeks — in order to determine how much damage an incomplete spinal cord injury has caused.
A cauda equina legion is damage to a collection of nerve cells called the cauda equina. These cells are located in the lower back where the spinal cord ends. Damage to them can cause loss of function and sensation. On certain occasions, it is possible for this type of injury to heal. If the injury is not too devastating, the cells may grow back and restore previously lost function to the affected area.
Damage to different sections of the spinal cord can also result in paralysis, loss of function, or loss of sensation. An injury to the back of the spinal cord, or posterior cord syndrome, may not result in a lack of feeling or motion, but instead a lack of coordination. Brown-Sequard syndrome is an acute spinal cord injury to the right or left of the spinal cord. A person with this type of injury may experience a lack of feeling and motion on the side of the body where the damage occurred, as well as a lack of pain and the ability to sense temperature on the other side.
Anterior cord syndrome, an acute spinal cord injury to the front of the cord, is characterized by a lack of motion and feeling in areas serviced by the damaged cord. The area supplied by the undamaged parts of the cord, however, may still have function and feeling. Central cord syndrome, an acute spinal cord injury to the center of the cord, can result in loss of movement to the arms and legs. With this type of injury, it is usually the arms that are affected more than the legs.