A complete spinal cord injury refers to the loss of all sensation and motor control below your level of injury.
It’s caused when all neural connections at the injury site are damaged, resulting in no spared pathways. As a result, signals from the brain cannot reach areas innervated below the injury, and sensory stimuli from below the injury cannot reach the brain.
However, there may be some hope for complete spinal cord injury recovery.
This article will discuss how an incomplete SCI can be mistaken for a complete one and what the recovery may consist of.
Complete Paraplegia vs Complete Quadriplegia
A complete spinal cord injury can result in paraplegia or quadriplegia (also known as tetraplegia).
Paraplegia refers to paralysis of the legs and quadriplegia refers to paralysis of both your arms and legs.
Because they have normal upper body functions, individuals with complete paraplegia can generally live very independent lives by learning adaptive techniques.
Individuals with complete quadriplegia can also learn adaptive techniques to maximize their independence but generally require more assistance. Those with C6-C8 spinal cord injuries will have at least some wrist control and be able to utilize an adaptive technique called tenodesis to grasp and release objects.
Up next, we’ll go over why some people mistake their incomplete injuries for complete ones.
Why Some People Think Their Incomplete SCI is Complete
It’s important not to confuse complete spinal cord injury with spinal shock.
Spinal shock describes the complete loss of reflexes and muscle tone below one’s level of injury. It’s caused by excessive swelling immediately after an SCI
Fortunately, it is a temporary condition and once inflammation starts to die down, reflexes may gradually start to return.
Spinal shock can take several months to subside, and some spinal cord injury patients may be pleasantly surprised to find out that their SCI is not as severe as it initially appeared.
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 is the recovery outlook as promising for complete injuries?
This study combined intensive gait training and epidural electrical stimulation on 2 patients with complete SCIs.
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 SCI patients, this is still a huge improvement for complete SCI 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 larger-scale experimentation, but definitely suggests that spinal cord regeneration is possible.
Finding Support After Spinal Cord Injury
You don’t have to (and shouldn’t!) go through spinal cord injury recovery on your own.
About 31% of all spinal cord injury patients have complete SCIs, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center.
Living with a motor disability can be discouraging, but many patients find ways to live happily with complete SCI by surrounding themselves with loved ones and focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t do.
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.