Complete spinal cord injury is when you don’t have any sensation or motor control below your level of injury.
We get it, it sounds intense, but there’s good news!
Complete spinal cord injury can transition into incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning it is possible to regain control or sensation.
According to this review, “approximately 10-20% of complete injuries convert to incomplete during the first year post-injury.”
Complete Paraplegia and Complete Quadriplegia
A complete spinal cord injury can result in paraplegia or quadriplegia (AKA tetraplegia).
Paraplegia only affects your lower body while quadriplegia affects both your upper and lower body.
The higher up the spine your injury is, the more likely you are to have quadriplegia. It’s caused by damage to the cervical region of your spinal cord, which is the area near your neck.
It is possible to have complete loss of motor function in your lower body and only partial loss in your upper limbs. This would classify as incomplete quadriplegia.
Immediately after a spinal cord injury, you might temporarily lose some feeling and reflexes. Next, we’ll go over why it’s ambiguous to determine if you have complete or incomplete paralysis right after an injury.
Spinal Shock vs. Complete Spinal Cord Injury
It’s important not to confuse complete spinal cord injury with spinal shock.
Spinal shock occurs immediately after a spinal cord injury and results in a sudden loss of reflexes and muscle tone.
Luckily, it is temporary and most people recover their reflexes within a period of 4 days to 12 weeks.
Because some functions may return, it’s difficult to distinguish whether you have incomplete or complete spinal cord injury during spinal shock.
After the initial period, you’ll have a more solid idea of which parts of your body are actually paralyzed.
Exercising with Complete Spinal Cord Injury
Even though complete SCI injury involves paralysis, you can still exercise! Physical therapy is how you might be able to regain movement and prevent your health from worsening.
The best exercises for complete spinal cord injury consist entirely of passive range of motion exercises.
Passive range of motion exercises are movements that your physical therapist or caregiver will make for you.
When your joints and muscles don’t get used for long periods of time, they get tight and stiff, which leads to spasticity.
If you don’t move your body at all, your muscles and bones will shrink and make you more accident prone.
Essentially, you’re trying to familiarize your body with these movements so that if you ever recover sensorimotor function, it’ll be easier to facilitate motion.
Potential Treatments for Complete Spinal Cord Injury
1. Electrical Stimulation
Electrical stimulation requires implanting a stimulator onto your spine. It emits electric currents that mimic brain signals to muscles below the site of injury.
Patients with incomplete spinal cord injury have been able to recover walking ability with a combination of epidural stimulation and intense gait training. But what about complete spinal cord injury patients?
This study combined intensive gait training and epidural electrical stimulation on 2 patients with complete spinal cord injury.
By the end of the 85 week period, both patients were able to sit, stand, and walk on a treadmill with body-weight support.
Although they weren’t able to walk overground like the incomplete spinal cord injury patients, this is still a huge improvement for complete spinal cord injury recovery.
2. Stem Cell Treatment
Stem cells can divide infinitely and become a variety of different cell types depending on their environment.
Mesenchymal stem cells are easily extracted from the bone marrow. They’re used in hopes of promoting tissue growth in severed spinal cords.
This case study used a combination of bone marrow nucleated cells and mesenchymal stem cell implantations on a 15-year-old patient with complete SCI.
Within 2 years, she developed sensations in her spine and regained bladder, bowel, and trunk control.
The process still needs to be tested on a larger scale, but definitely suggests that spinal cord regeneration is possible.
What to Expect with Complete Spinal Cord Injury
Complete spinal cord injury means zero control or sensation below your level of injury.
About 31% of spinal cord injury patients experience complete spinal cord injury in the form of complete quadriplegia or complete paraplegia, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
Paralysis often means that you won’t be able to do everyday tasks like using the restroom or taking a shower on your own. Most complete spinal cord injury patients become dependent upon their caregivers.
To prevent negative side effects of SCI, you’ll have to make lots of adjustments to your lifestyle.
Disability can be discouraging, but many patients find ways to live happily with complete spinal cord injury by surrounding themselves with loved ones and focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.
Support for Complete Spinal Cord Injury
Recovering from spinal cord injury should never be a battle you face on your own.
It’s important to have a support system full of people who want to help you get better mentally and physically.
If you ever feel like your friends or family don’t understand what you’re going through, consider joining a support group.
Our partner, United Spinal Association, has a network of over 200 spinal cord injury support groups throughout the country that you can look into if you’d like to talk to other complete spinal cord injury patients.
Speaking with people who are experiencing the same problems as you will be comforting and remind you that you’re not alone.