According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, about 20% of SCIs result in incomplete paraplegia.
It’s the 2nd most common condition after incomplete quadriplegia, which means incomplete injuries make up about 68% of all spinal cord injuries.
Today, we’re going to answer a bunch of frequently asked questions about incomplete paraplegia.
We’ll cover everything from causes to treatments to realistic recovery goals. Let’s get started!
What Is Paraplegia?
If you break it down, ‘para’ means two and ‘plegia’ means paralysis.
Put it together and it’s the paralysis of two limbs, your legs.
The good thing about paraplegia is that you have control over your shoulders, arms, and hands. You can still grab objects, push yourself on your wheelchair, and many other activities.
Individuals with paraplegia have a lot of potential to be independent because of their control over upper body functions.
What Causes Incomplete Paraplegia?
The only SCI that doesn’t cause paraplegia is a cervical spinal cord injury, which is an injury to your neck.
Cervical SCIs will result in quadriplegia, which is paralysis of your upper and lower body.
The most common causes of incomplete paraplegia are motor vehicle accidents, falls, violence, and sports.
The lower down your spine your site of injury is, the more parts of your body will have normal function.
With spinal cord injury, not only does the area you injured get paralyzed, but also all the regions below the injury.
This is because brain signals can’t get past the site of injury. Even though your spinal cord below the injury is completely fine, it doesn’t receive any brain signals and can’t act.
What’s the Difference Between Complete and Incomplete Paraplegia?
Incomplete paraplegia means that the injury has not completely severed your spinal cord and some neural circuits between the brain and body still exist!
With incomplete paraplegia, you’ll likely have some sort of sensation or control in paralyzed regions of your body.
In contrast, complete paraplegia means that you have no control or feeling at and below your site of injury.
After an SCI, your body activates various defense mechanisms to protect the spinal cord. SCI patients often experience spinal shock, which is when they lose function and reflexes below their injury site due to inflammation and other immune reactions.
Luckily, spinal shock is only temporary and some of your reflexes may return after your body starts to calm down and swelling reduces.
Many SCI patients think they have complete SCI, but later find out they were only in spinal shock as their motor functions gradually returned.
This is why it often takes a couple of weeks to determine if you have a complete or incomplete SCI.
What Are Some Realistic Recovery Goals For People with Incomplete Paraplegia?
Individuals with incomplete paraplegia have a better chance of recovery than people with complete paraplegia, incomplete quadriplegia, and complete quadriplegia.
Most people with SCI recover at least two levels of injury with proper physical therapy.
Depending on the location and severity of your SCI, your recovery goals will vary.
Because every spinal cord injury is different, it’s essential that you get evaluated by a physical therapist. They will help personalize a recovery program specifically for your SCI.
Generally, spinal cord injury heals from the top-down, meaning that you’ll recover motor control or sensation in your hips before your knees.
For a better idea of what functions you’ll regain first, check out this article on myotomes.
Incomplete Paraplegia Recovery Checklist:
- moving and balancing your upper body (core strength)
- hip movement
- bowel/ bladder control
- bending and extending the knees
- rotating the ankles
- control over toes
- standing ability
- walking ability
Individuals with incomplete paraplegics have the best chances of recovery from spinal cord injury so yes, walking again after SCI is a realistic goal!
Is There a Treatment for Incomplete Paraplegia?
Although treatment for spinal cord injury does not currently exist, there are lots of promising clinical trials that suggest a bright future for SCI recovery.
Electrical stimulation, stem cell therapy, and intense gait training show great potential as treatments for incomplete paraplegia.
The most popular type of electrical stimulation for incomplete paraplegia recovery is epidural stimulation.
Epidural stimulation requires an invasive surgery where a stimulator is implanted onto the lower region of the spine.
This stimulator sends electrical currents that mimic brain signals to neurons below the site of injury and encourage movement.
According to this article, a patient with T1 incomplete paraplegia was able to achieve overground walking with the help of a walker after a combination of electrical stimulation and intense physical therapy. With the epidural stimulation on, the patient was also able to independently stand for about 50 minutes at a time.
Stem Cell Transplants
Unlike epidural electrical stimulation, which works around the spinal cord injury, stem cell treatments focus on repairing the injury by promoting neural regeneration.
Stem cells are useful because they are highly adaptable, can become a variety of different cell types, and can divide infinitely.
Ideally, by transplanting stem cells into the spinal cord, they can help replace the cell deaths caused by the injury.
Major barriers that prevent spinal cord regeneration are glial scar formation and cystic cavitation.
Researchers are currently trying to figure out how to reduce the cavity and prevent scarring to that axons can regenerate through the lesion site.
Intense Gait Training
How you train is critical for SCI recovery. The spinal cord can learn and forget movements, so lots of repetition is necessary.
After spinal cord injury, you need to retrain your body how to move.
The main goal of incomplete paraplegics is to recover walking ability.
Gait training is a type of physiotherapy that focuses on developing your walk. This can include using a weight-supporting treadmill, walker, cane, etc.
Both epidural stimulation and stem cell therapy are useless without intensive gait training. Without the physical training, your body won’t know how to move.
How Do I Exercise With Incomplete Paraplegia?
With incomplete paraplegia, you can easily exercise your arms. If you have a thoracic SCI, you might have some trouble with balance because your core is affected.
Try to move as much as you can. It will help familiarize your body with movements and develop muscle memory so that over time, controlling your movements gets easier.
SCI patients need to exercise to prevent poor blood circulation and unnecessary pain.
Consider passive range of motion exercises for areas you can’t control. They’ll help ensure that your joints are being used to their full range of motion and prevent injury.
Depending on the level of your incomplete paraplegia, you may not need to be on a wheelchair. Using crutches or a walker can help you practice walking movements without losing balance.
Another good idea for developing your gait is to get into a pool to practice standing and walking on your own. The buoyancy will keep your body afloat and take a lot of pressure off your joints.
How Long Does Recovery from Incomplete Paraplegia Take?
Every spinal cord injury is different; therefore, every spinal cord injury has a different recovery process.
It not only depends on the location and severity of your injury, but also how much effort you put into physical therapy and taking care of your health.
The more consistently you exercise, the easier it’s going to be to perform movements.
The most recovery will occur within the first six months following your SCI. After that period, recovery often slows.
However, incomplete paraplegia recovery is still very much possible even years after your injury, so don’t lose hope!
Especially through developments in electrical stimulation and stem cell therapy, there’s a promising future for SCI recovery.
Hopefully, this article helped you get a better understanding of incomplete paraplegia.