About 47% of all spinal cord injuries result in incomplete quadriplegia. This makes it the most common type of spinal cord injury by far.
Today, we’re answering some of the most frequently asked questions about incomplete quadriplegia to help you better understand what to expect and how to cope.
Let’s get started!
What’s the Difference Between Tetraplegia and Quadriplegia?
They actually refer to the same condition and can be used interchangeably.
If you break it down, ‘quadri’ (Latin) and ‘tetra’ (Greek) both mean ‘four’ while ‘plegia’ means ‘paralysis’.
But what does the ‘four’ refer to? Quadriplegia is when both the upper and lower body experience paralysis; so all four limbs (both arms and legs) get paralysis.
In contrast, ‘para’ means ‘two’; therefore, paraplegia is when only your legs get paralysis.
What Causes Incomplete Quadriplegia?
Incomplete Quadriplegia (aka incomplete tetraplegia) occurs when you damage to your cervical spinal cord. This is the area that makes up your neck and consists of nerves that link directly to your upper extremities.
Causes of cervical spinal cord damage vary but most commonly include car collisions, sports accidents, falls, and violence.
Because the muscles below the injury site don’t receive brain signals, they remain paralyzed.
The paralyzed body is generally healthy. It’s just that the muscles aren’t receiving any direction from the brain due to spinal cord injury and therefore cannot act.
The higher the injury, the more parts of your body experience paralysis. For example, a C2 spinal cord injury will affect your ability to speak while a C8 spinal cord injury will result in regular arm function with some weakness in the hands.
What’s the Difference Between Complete and Incomplete Quadriplegia?
Luckily, incomplete paralysis means that the spinal cord is not completely severed and that some connections between the brain and body below the level of injury still exist.
There’s a greater chance of recovery for incomplete spinal cord injury patients because of the surviving neural connections. Research suggests that existing neural connections can potentially sprout new nerve fibers.
In contrast, a complete quadriplegic will not have any motor or sensory function below their level of injury due to a more severe lesion of the spinal cord.
Ever heard of spinal shock? It happens right after a spinal cord injury and is when you suddenly lose motor control and reflexes. Don’t worry, it’s temporary and after anywhere between a couple of days to 3 months, your reflexes and functions will gradually return.
A lot of spinal cord injury patients think that they have complete paralysis, but later find out that they were still in spinal shock as their functions came back. It’s difficult to diagnose whether you have a complete or incomplete injury when you’re in spinal shock so don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions.
What Are Realistic Recovery Goals for Incomplete Quadriplegics?
All quadriplegics are going to want to focus on recovering arm functions before even thinking about walking again.
You can live a pretty independent life with paralysis in your legs, but not so much with paralysis in your arms.
Most incomplete quadriplegics have to rely on a caregiver to accomplish everyday tasks, at least at the beginning.
Most spinal cord injury patients recover at least 2 levels of injury with proper physiotherapy. Depending on how high your spinal cord injury is, your goals for recovery will vary.
Similarly, every spinal cord injury is different. For example, 2 people can have C6 incomplete quadriplegia but depending on how severe the damage is, one might have more motor control or recover faster than the other.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure to see a physical therapist so you can get a recovery program specialized for your injury.
Use the list below as a general guide of practices you should try to develop. It’s in order of what functions you should recover first.
Incomplete Quadriplegic Recovery Checklist:
- controlling breathing
- moving shoulders
- bending and extending the elbow
- rotating the wrist
- grabbing objects
Is There a Treatment for Incomplete Quadriplegia?
Researchers are currently working on some very promising treatments for recovering motor control after spinal cord injury.
Electrical stimulation requires a stimulator implant that sends electrical currents to areas below the site of injury. You control the frequency with the touch of a button and it excites spinal neurons, enabling movement.
A recent study had a participant with C5 incomplete quadriplegia achieve overground walking using horizontal poles for balance. This was possible with the help of an electrical stimulator and locomotor training over a period of 85 weeks. He was also able to stand using a walker and sit independently, but only with the stimulator on.
Stem Cell Therapy
Stem cells have 2 properties that make them ideal for healing:
- Ability to Divide Infinitely: Stem cells can divide and renew themselves for long periods. This helps replenish the number of cells in a damaged body part.
- They Are Unspecialized: Stem cells are extremely versatile and can differentiate to become a lot of different cell types. They are greatly influenced by their surrounding environment.
The problem with stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury is that neurons in the spinal cord don’t regenerate as simply as other cells in the body.
Stem cell therapy is still undergoing clinical trials but so far, many incomplete quadriplegics have shown improvements recovering motor function.
Something that both electrical stimulation and stem cell therapy require is lots of intense physical training.
Because incomplete quadriplegics still have some unbroken neural connections running from the brain through the entire spinal cord, repetitive exercise can encourage those nerves to sprout new connections around the site of injury and basically reteach the body how to move.
This requires a lot of commitment to exercise and will take time, but the more you train, the better your results will be.
How Do I Exercise With Incomplete Quadriplegia?
The key to exercising, even if you have paralysis in your upper body, is to move what you can often.
If you can’t move very much on your own, consider passive range of motion exercises.
Passive range of motion exercise is when your physical therapist or caregiver moves your body for you. This ensures that they’re regularly being used to their full potential and prevents stiffness.
Practicing these motions will help with blood circulation, flexibility, and prevent unnecessary pain.
Once you start to develop control over your hands, consider practicing hand exercises to improve accuracy and dexterity of the fingers. Even simple actions like turning a doorknob or unscrewing a jar will help develop the joints and muscles in your hands.
We want to stress the importance of repetitive exercise.
You can have all the electrical stimulation or stem cell therapy in the world but without actual physical training, you won’t be able to move.
You want to build muscle memory through repetition so that your body recognizes the movements and no longer has to strain to do them.
The best way to get lots of repetition without making it feel like a chore is to do something fun like MusicGlove.
Essentially, you’re so engaged by the challenge of the game that you don’t realize how many repetitions you’re performing.
That’s a Wrap!
If you’d like to connect with other spinal cord injury patients to share experiences, consider joining a support group.
Our sponsors at United Spinal have a national peer support network with locations throughout the country that you can join!
If you have any questions about incomplete quadriplegia that we didn’t cover, feel free to ask in the comment section below!