Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury Information

A spinal cord injury can happen anywhere along the spine.

The location of the spinal cord injury will have a great impact on what parts of the body are affected and how much of the body it affects. Spinal cord injuries that occur lower on the cord affect a lesser part of the body and spinal cord injuries farther up on the cord will affect a greater part of the body.

A person’s health at the time of injury will also have an impact on how severely their body is impacted by a spinal cord injury (SCI).

Below is an explanation of what it means when someone has a thoracic spinal cord injury.

The Thoracic Spine

Human vertebral column

Located above the lumbar vertebrae are 12 thoracic vertebrae (T1-T12). The thoracic vertebrae are indicated in orange on the picture to the right.

These vertebrae go from below the neck (approximately the top of the shoulders) down to the waist.  T1 is located closest to the neck while T12 is at the bottom, closest to the lumbar vertebrae.

Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury

The spinal cord in this area is protected by vertebrae and ribs so thoracic injuries are often extremely traumatic. These injuries often result in a complete loss of motor and sensory function below the injury.

Dr. Wise Young, world-renowned neuroscientist, distinguished professor, and founding director of the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience states

The thoracic segments are the best protected of all the vertebral segments because of the ribs. It takes enormous forces to fracture the thoracic spinal vertebral bodies. Traumatic injuries of the upper thoracic spinal cord are relatively rare, accounting for only 10-15% of spinal cord injuries (compared to 40% due to cervical, 35% due to thoracolumbar injuries, and 5% due to lumbosacral injuries). Thoracic spinal cord injuries occur as a result of high-speed motor vehicular accidents, tumors that have compressed the spinal cord, and ischemic injuries of the spinal cord. When traumatic injuries of the thoracic spinal cord occur, they generally are severe and often result in complete loss of neurological function below the injury site.

Injury to the thoracic spinal cord causes paralysis or weakness of the legs (paraplegia), decreased/abnormal muscle control in the abdomen and back, sexual dysfunction, loss or decreased skin sensation, and loss of voluntary bladder and bowel control.

Hand and arm function are not usually affected.

Higher Level Thoracic Injuries

Abdominal muscles can be affected by an injury in this area which will limit torso control.

Injuries to the higher thoracic nerves can affect muscles in the upper chest and make it difficult to produce effective coughs. This increases the risk of pneumonia resulting from respiratory infections.

In some cases, a high-level thoracic nerve injury results in low blood pressure, difficulty maintaining normal body temperature, and abnormal sweating due to a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system (the nervous system that should work automatically without having to think about it). Although, this is more common in cervical spinal cord injuries.

Thoracic Nerves

The Shepherd Center subdivides the thoracic nerves into 2 sections.

T1 – T5 nerves affect muscles in the abdomen, upper chest, and mid-back. These muscles and nerves help with torso control, controlling the rib cage, and can affect your diaphragm possibly making it more difficult to breathe.

T6 – T12 nerves affect back and abdominal muscles. These muscles and nerves also are important for torso and trunk control and can affect your posture and your ability to balance.

Thoracic Injury Outcomes

An injury to the thoracic spinal cord results in paraplegia. These injuries most often result in needing to use a manual wheelchair or perhaps a power wheelchair.

Your ability to sit and balance may be affected and it can be more difficult to control your torso. Posture can be affected and you may not be owed to sit up as straight as used to.

Your thoracic injury may affect your ability to effectively breath, take deep breaths, and/or produce effective coughs.

Injuries at this level result in loss of bladder and bowel control but most people are able to manage these bodily functions on their own without assistance.

Thoracic injuries do not affect the arms and hands.


All spinal cord injuries are different and your recovery will be different from everyone else’s.

People with thoracic injuries can drive a specially adapted vehicle; stand in specialized wheelchairs or therapy equipment such as a standing frame; may be able to walk with leg specialized braces.

A thoracic spinal cord injury certainly means life will be different but in no way does it mean that a purposeful, happy, fulfilling life is not possible.

Determination, the support of family and friends, and the willingness to think creatively out-of-the-box can go a long way in figuring out how to navigate life with a thoracic spinal cord injury.

Research has progressed so much in the last several years that innovations are now in clinical trials that enable people with thoracic injuries to regain lost function. A great place to check current clinical trials and to determine if you qualify to participate is:

The Spinal Cord and Injuries

To learn more about the spinal cord and what it does click HERE.

Learn more about different types and levels of spinal cord injury as well as classifications click HERE.

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