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Complete Spinal Cord Injury: Is Recovery Possible?

Complete spinal cord injury

A complete spinal cord injury refers to the loss of all sensation and motor control below your level of injury.

It 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, as well as the recovery process if the SCI is complete.

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.

Any injury to the cervical region of the spinal cord will result in quadriplegia while an injury to the thoraciclumbar, or sacral regions will result in paraplegia.

Because they have normal upper body functions, individuals with complete paraplegia generally live very independent lives by learning adaptive techniques. 

Individuals with complete quadriplegia may also learn adaptive techniques to maximize their independence but often require more assistance. Those with C6-C8 spinal cord injuries may have limited wrist control and be able to utilize an adaptive technique called tenodesis to grasp and release objects.

Next, we’ll explain why some people mistake their incomplete injuries for complete ones.

Why Some People Think Their Incomplete SCI is Complete

you can't tell if you have complete spinal cord injury until spinal shock goes away

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 begins to decrease, reflexes may gradually start to return. 

Spinal shock may be present for several months before it begins to subside, therefore spinal cord injury patients may be surprised to discover that their SCI is not as severe as it initially appeared.  

Exercising with Complete Spinal Cord Injury

spinal cord injury patients with quadriplegia can still exercise with passive range of motion.

Individuals with complete spinal cord injuries should exercise to maintain range of motion in their joints, promote circulation, and prevent secondary complications like pressure sores.

The best exercises for complete spinal cord injury involves passive range of motion.

Passive range of motion exercises are movements that your physical therapist or caregiver performs with you on a daily basis.

When your joints and muscles are not engaged in movement for long periods of time, the muscles become tight and stiff. This may limit your movements, reduce circulation, and increase pain from muscle shortening that puts pressure on the bones.

Potential Treatments for Complete Spinal Cord Injury

Working on your flexibilty, muscle tone, walking, and balance will help make it easier for you to carry out everyday actions. Small improvements are still big signs of recovery.

Electric stimulation and stem cell research appear to be the most promising forms of treatment for complete spinal cord injury at this time.

1. Electrical Stimulation

Electrical stimulation involves 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  to promote 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 requires larger-scale experimentation, but suggests that spinal cord regeneration is possible.

Finding Support After Spinal Cord Injury

recovering from paralysis is much easier with a strong support group

Spinal cord injury recovery is most effective with the support of rehabilitation specialists and targeted adaptive equipment.

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 may be challenging, but many patients adapt to live their best life 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  surround yourself with people and activities that promote mental and physical well being for you to live your best life.

Joining a support group and interacting with people who are experiencing the same challenges provides support, socialization, and education for living with an SCI.

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