Cervical Spinal Cord Injury Overview

The Cervical portion of the spine comprises the top portion of the spinal cord, comprising seven vertebrae (C1 - C7) in the neck.  

Being closer to the brain and affecting a larger portion of the body, cervical spinal cord injuries are typically the most severe variety of spinal cord injury. If there is an injury in the cervical area, it will result in tetraplegia/quadriplegia, meaning there is limited or absent feeling or movement below the shoulders/neck. 

General Effects of Cervical Spinal Cord Injuries

Cervical spine injuries often involve permanent complete or partial loss of sensory function, and many associated complications. As is the case with all injuries of the spinal cord, injuries located higher on the spine will be more severe, with high cervical spinal cord injury often being fatal. Click on the sections below to learn more about injury expectations for specific cervical vertebrae.

  • Most severe of the spinal cord injury levels
  • Paralysis in arms, hands, trunk and legs
  • Patient may not be able to breathe on his or her own, cough, or control bowel or bladder movements.
  • Ability to speak is sometimes impaired or reduced.
  • When all four limbs are affected, this is called tetraplegia or quadriplegia.
  • Requires complete assistance with activities of daily living, such as eating, dressing, bathing, and getting in or out of bed
  • May be able to use powered wheelchairs with special controls to move around on their own
  • Will not be able to drive a car on their own
  • Requires 24-hour-a-day personal care
  • Person can raise his or her arms and bend elbows.
  • Likely to have some or total paralysis of wrists, hands, trunk and legs
  • Can speak and use diaphragm, but breathing will be weakened
  • Will need assistance with most activities of daily living, but once in a power wheelchair, can move from one place to another independently
  • Nerves affect wrist extension.
  • Paralysis in hands, trunk and legs, typically
  • Should be able to bend wrists back
  • Can speak and use diaphragm, but breathing will be weakened
  • Can move in and out of wheelchair and bed with assistive equipment
  • May also be able to drive an adapted vehicle
  • Little or no voluntary control of bowel or bladder, but may be able to manage on their own with special equipment
  • Nerves control elbow extension and some finger extension.
  • Most can straighten their arm and have normal movement of their shoulders.
  • Can do most activities of daily living by themselves, but may need assistance with more difficult tasks
  • May also be able to drive an adapted vehicle
  • Little or no voluntary control of bowel or bladder, but may be able to manage on their own with special equipment
  • Nerves control some hand movement.
  • Should be able to grasp and release objects
  • Can do most activities of daily living by themselves, but may need assistance with more difficult tasks
  • May also be able to drive an adapted vehicle
  • Little or no voluntary control of bowel or bladder, but may be able to manage on their own with special equipment

Cervical Spinal Cord Injury Recovery and Prognosis

After swelling in the spinal cord decreases and any necessary surgery is performed, patients can stabilize and begin the recovery process. 

  • Recovery will focus on stabilization of the injured area of the spinal cord, but most injuries are permanent.
  • Steroid and anti-inflammatory drugs administered shortly after injury, such as methylprednisolone, can help reduce swelling, which is a common cause of secondary damage at the time of injury.
  • Rehabilitation often will focus on learning to use the non-paralyzed portions of the body to regain varying levels of autonomy.
  • Many people who experience a cervical spinal cord injury will require permanent, 24-hour care for the remainder of their lives.

Learn more about spinal cord injuries, including coping, recovery and adaptation at MyShepherdConnection.org.