Complete spinal cord injury is when you don’t have any sensation or motor control below your level of injury.
It sounds intense, but there’s good news!
Generally, the initial outcomes of your spinal cord injury aren’t as bad as they seem and over time, control or sensation may return.
We noticed that there are a few misinterpretations of what a complete spinal cord injury actually is.
Typically, it is identified by a completely transected spinal cord that prevents signals from traveling past the injury site.
However, an ASIA Impairment Scale Grade A (no preserved motor function/ no sensation below S4/S5) is also considered a complete spinal cord injury. It’s important to understand that spinal shock can cause initial loss of all sensorimotor functions and reflexes below the level of injury.
It’s only after spinal shock dies down that you can determine whether you truly have a complete spinal cord injury or not.
Complete Paraplegia and Complete Quadriplegia
A complete spinal cord injury can result in paraplegia or quadriplegia (AKA tetraplegia).
Paraplegia only affects your legs while quadriplegia affects both your arms and legs.
Any injury to the cervical region of the spinal cord will result in quadriplegia.
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 individuals with complete spinal cord injuries should exercise to maintain range of motion in their joints and prevent secondary complications like pressure sores.
The best exercises for complete spinal cord injury encourage passive range of motion.
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 severely limits your movements and reduces circulation.
Additionally, your muscles and bones will shrink and make you more accident prone.
Movement does the body a whole lot of good, so make sure that you’re practicing passive range of motion exercises with your caregiver on a daily basis.
Potential Treatments for Complete Spinal Cord Injury
As of right now, electric stimulation and stem cell research appear to be the most promising forms of treatment 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
About 31% of all spinal cord injury patients have complete spinal cord injuries, 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
You don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) go through spinal cord injury recovery 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.
Speaking with people who are experiencing the same problems as you will be comforting and remind you that you’re not alone.