Any injury to the spine and spinal cord is potentially life changing. Along with the rest of the spine, the C7 vertebra protects and carries the delicate spinal cord from the skull to the base of the spine. All of the human nervous system is connected through the spinal cord, anything that damages it will limit the ability of the brain to send messages around the body and could result in paralysis. The general rule is, the higher up the spine the injury the more severe the loss of function or feeling and the lower the injury the lesser the degree of severity. As C7 is located at the base of the neck, any significant damage to it could result in complete loss of mobility below this point.
Spinal cord injury is commonly caused by trauma from accidents such as falls from a horse, car crashes and sports injuries. In these cases the impact can cause fracture or dislocation of the vertebra and also damage to the discs that separate the vertebrae from each other. The symptoms of any damage can range from pins and needles and numbness to loss of movement. If a fracture or dislocation is suspected the patient will be immobilised as soon as possible to stop any further damage, before being X-Rayed to clarify the diagnosis. However if the injury is to the disc, or nerve involvement is a possibility, an MRI scan would be used as this type of injury cannot always be picked up by an X-ray.
Management and treatment of any spinal cord injury needs to be as rapid as possible to minimise long term problems. For a simple fracture of the bone that had not impacted on the spinal cord, immediate treatment for an injury to C7 vertebra would be immobilisation of the neck with a neck brace to give the bone time to heal. For a more serious injury, surgery would be needed to decompress the vertebrae and relieve pressure on the spinal cord. As the spine is a very delicate and complex structure, even surgery cannot always repair the damage done by serious trauma and any damage done to the spinal cord itself is usually permanent.
Following treatment, the prognosis for a C7 injury can vary greatly depending on how bad the initial injury was and the speed and quality of the treatment. Complete recovery is possible and obviously the most desirable outcome, however at the opposite end of the scale, lifelong paralysis from the shoulders down is a possibility. If the spinal cord injury has caused permanent damage the patient would be confined to a wheelchair with no movement or feeling in the legs or trunk. However they would have full head and neck movement, their breathing would not be compromised and they would have full arm and wrist movement with limited ability in the fingers.
Doctors and scientists continue to study and develop new treatments to repair damage to the spinal cord and hope in the future that this sort of injury will no longer be permanent.