What Is Quadriplegia?

Spinal cord injuries are serious medical emergencies that often result in permanent disability. The spinal cord carries brain signals to the rest of the body through a thick bundle of nerves running from the brain down through the spine to the tailbone. The spinal cord cannot repair itself after an injury like the rest of the body. A broken bone will heal, and a cut will close and scar, but a spinal cord injury is permanent.

As Austin spinal cord injury attorneys, we know that one of the most debilitating conditions that can result from a spinal cord injury is quadriplegia. The word “quadriplegia” refers to paralysis of the arms and legs. This condition most often results from spinal cord injuries, but other conditions like strokes and cerebral palsy can cause similar paralysis.

How Does Quadriplegia Occur?

Quadriplegia that occurs from cerebral palsy or a stroke may improve over time if the spinal cord is undamaged, but this isn’t always possible. Quadriplegia resulting from a spinal cord injury is permanent. Whenever the spinal cord suffers an injury, the location of the injury on the cord determines the extent of the resulting damage. An injury lower on the spine will affect less of the body than an injury closer to the base of the skull. Most quadriplegia cases result from spinal cord injuries in the neck area.

Doctors classify spinal cord injuries as either “complete” or “incomplete.” A complete injury is one that completely severs the spinal cord, cutting off brain signals to the parts of the body managed by the cord below the injury site. An incomplete injury can have varying effects. Some people who suffer incomplete spinal cord injuries lose the ability to move the affected limbs but retain some sensation. For others, it is the opposite. They may be able to move the affected limbs (usually in a limited capacity) but have diminished touch sensation. Some people who suffer incomplete spinal cord injuries can move only part of the affected limbs. For example, someone may be able to move his or her arms but have no control over hand and finger movements.

It’s important to note that the paralysis caused by a spinal cord injury does not only interfere with moving the limbs but can also interfere with controlling other bodily functions. A severe enough spinal cord injury can make it impossible to control things like breathing and bowel functions.

Long-Term Complications

Anyone who suffers from quadriplegia faces lifelong disability and may be susceptible to other medical conditions, as well. For example, a quadriplegic who loses the ability to control his or her breathing will require a respirator or other breathing devices. Quadriplegia also leads to immobility, so most quadriplegics spend a great deal of time in bed or reclined. Unless someone is there to periodically move the person, painful bed sores can form. Immobility can also lead to the formation of blood clots from poor circulation.

Deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in one of the deep veins in the muscle tissues, or pulmonary embolisms, blood clots in an artery in the lungs, are two very serious possibilities facing quadriplegics. These conditions are fatal without immediate treatment, so most people who suffer from quadriplegia will require consistent supervision and daily care.

Treatment

There are few options for treating quadriplegia. Since the condition is permanent, most treatment focuses on maintenance and comfort rather than attempting to restore mobility or sensation. Caregivers who supervise quadriplegics must take care to reposition their patients often, ensure they have prompt medical attention in case of emergencies, and prevent muscle atrophy. In past years, caregivers would simply use massages or would physically exercise their patient’s limbs, but electrode therapy can help prevent muscle atrophy with less discomfort.

Quadriplegia is an extremely difficult condition to manage, but many breakthrough therapies and medical technologies are helping people with this condition enjoy a better quality of living. Some experimental procedures even hope to replace affected muscles and tissues with healthy versions that retain nerve function, with the hope of restoring function. While most of these treatments are far from mass implementation, there are still many support networks and other resources available for quadriplegics and their caregivers.