Roughly 20.2% of spinal cord injuries result in complete paraplegia, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
This article will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about complete paraplegia. We’ll cover everything from its causes, what parts of the body it affects, and its treatments.
But first, let’s start from the beginning and explain what complete paraplegia is.
What is Complete Paraplegia?
‘Para’ means two and ‘plegia’ means paralysis, so think paralysis of two limbs (i.e. your legs).
A complete injury means that you have no motor control or sensation below your level of injury.
In contrast, quadriplegia (aka tetraplegia) is paralysis of four limbs.
Luckily, people with complete paraplegia have full control of their arms, so they can still independently perform lots of daily tasks like eating and grooming
What Causes Complete Paraplegia?
The most common causes of spinal cord injury are car accidents, falls, violence, and sports.
Complete paraplegia is caused by injury to any part of your spinal cord, except the cervical region which makes up your neck. Cervical spinal cord injuries result in quadriplegia.
This is a lot of surface area. Injury to 24 out of your 31 vertebrae will lead to paraplegia but each level of injury results in a different functional ability.
The higher up your spine the injury is, the more functional impairments you’ll experience.
For example, someone with a T6 spinal cord injury will experience more paralysis than someone with an L4 spinal cord injury because everywhere below the injury also gets affected.
What Does Complete Paraplegia Recovery Consist Of?
Complete injuries are notorious for having poor recovery outlook, but complete spinal cord injuries can transition into incomplete injuries!
Especially with promising studies on electrical epidural stimulation and stem cell research, there’s definitely hope for complete spinal cord injury patients.
Ever heard of spinal shock? Many spinal cord injury patients think they have complete SCIs when in fact, they’re in spinal shock.
Spinal shock is a temporary condition where you lose your reflexes below your injury site.
When you injure your spinal cord, your body starts to freak out and emits a bunch of defense mechanisms that cause inflammation and swelling.
Too much swelling cuts off blood flow, which prevents normal body functions.
Luckily, this hostile microenvironment in the spinal cord does calm down. Once the swelling starts to reduce, your functions should gradually return.
Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction
Complete paraplegia recovery often involves management of bowel and bladder dysfunction.
Those who don’t have any motor or sensory function in their hip area usually can’t tell when they need to use the bathroom and end up having accidents.
Thoracic SCI patients may not have the core strength to push their bowels out and end up having constipation or stomach pains.
Management of bladder or bowel dysfunction often involves using a catheter, taking medication, and changing your diet and fluid intake.
Increased Arm Dependence
Complete paraplegia results in increased dependence on your arms to compensate for reduced leg function.
Pushing yourself on a wheelchair allows you to get from one place to another and work out your arms at the same time.
However, this 2-in-1 action does come with a risk of musculoskeletal pain, which results from overuse.
Is There a Treatment for Complete Paraplegia?
Treating complete paraplegia is tricky because the spinal cord lesion is so deep that it cuts off neural circuits between the brain and spinal cord.
So how can the body and brain relay messages now?
Electric Epidural Stimulation
One method is electric epidural stimulation. Although still in clinical trials, electrical epidural stimulation has allowed patients with complete paraplegia to walk again.
By surgically inserting a stimulator onto the spine, electric currents can excite the neurons below the injury and promote movement.
The electric currents act like brain signals and tell the body to react.
This requires a combination of epidural stimulation and intense physical training. Without PT, the patient’s body does not know how to make movements and without epidural stimulation, the neurons don’t receive any input to move.
Stem Cell Therapy
Another treatment in progress is stem cell therapy, which is when stem cells are inserted into your spinal cord to promote tissue regeneration.
Stem cells can divide infinitely and can differentiate into a variety of different cell types.
Rather than working around the injury, stem cell therapy focuses on repairing the lesion and promoting axon regrowth.
However, the spinal cord doesn’t heal as easily as the rest of the body. Researchers are currently working on reducing the cysts and glial scarring that prevent stem cells from promoting axon regeneration.
How Do I Exercise with Complete Paraplegia?
With complete paraplegia, you’re going to want to ensure that your core is strong to have good balance.
You should have no problem exercising your arms unless you have a thoracic injury that affects your balance.
Repetition is extremely important for spinal cord injury recovery.
The more you practice, the easier an action becomes. This is because you’re creating muscle memory and familiarizing your body with the movements.
It’s also crucial that you exercise the paralyzed parts of your body as well to prevent muscle atrophy and other complications that result from being sedentary like pressure sores and poor blood circulation.
This can be done through passive range of motion exercises where your caretaker or physiotherapist moves your body for you. This helps gently stretch your muscles and ensure that your joints are flexible.
When you don’t use your muscles and joints for long periods, they tighten which can cause spasms or pain. Along with your bones, they’ll start to shrink from disuse and make you more prone to injury.
That’s a Wrap!
Complete paraplegia can be overwhelming but after you learn to adjust a few habits, your recovery will get easier day by day.
Spinal cord injury recovery requires both physical and mental strength, so stay positive!