Is it possible to recover from quadriplegia?
Quadriplegia describes paralysis in both the upper and lower extremities. It’s generally the result of injury to the cervical region of the spinal cord (the area that makes up your neck).
Depending on the type and severity of injury, quadriplegia can leave many paralyzed permanently from the neck down, but it can also be milder and have great potential for recovery.
This article will explain what factors make quadriplegic recovery possible and share some inspiring recovery stories.
What Factors Affect Quadriplegic Recovery?
The recovery outcomes of every spinal cord injury will vary based on the completeness of injury and how aggressively recovery is pursued.
1. Severity of Injury
The severity of injury will depend on how complete the spinal cord lesion is. A complete spinal cord injury indicates that all movement and sensation below the level of injury has been lost, typically because the spinal cord has been complete severed or damaged all the way through.
An incomplete injury means that there is some degree of movement and/or sensation spared below the level of injury.
For example, Lesion A is going to result in more weakness than Lesion B because more neural pathways are going to be interrupted.
The more weakness or paralysis, the more functions will need to be recovered.
As long as the injury is incomplete (the spinal cord is not severed all the way through), recovery to some degree is possible.
SCI patients with less severe quadriplegia may be able to move their arms and hands with weakness, while those with more severe quadriplegia may not be able to move their arms at all.
The higher your level of injury, the more parts of your upper body will be affected.
2. Rehabilitation Therapy
Spinal cord injury rehabilitative therapies generally consist of physical and occupational therapy.
Physical therapy will use exercise to strengthen your muscles, improve range of motion, and build endurance.
Some people with incomplete quadriplegia may still be able to move parts of their legs or torso and will need physical therapy to improve those functions.
Occupational therapy will teach you how to adjust to everyday life with an SCI by focusing on activities of daily living like eating, toileting, and grooming.
Those with more severe quadriplegia will likely need a caregiver to help them with these activities, while those with less severe quadriplegia may be able to regain independence by strengthening their bodies, learning how to use adaptive tools, and learning specific ways to move to accomplish these daily tasks. Additionally, in some severe cases of higher-level SCI where breathing and/or swallowing functions have been impacted, speech therapy rehabilitation may also be involved.
Generally, the most recovery progress is seen within the first 6 to 12 months after injury.
This is because the central nervous system is at an increased state of plasticity after an SCI.
However, incomplete spinal cord injury recovery is possible even after a year, if you’re willing to put in the work.
Even after that period of increased plasticity, your central nervous system is still capable of adapting and rewiring itself.
Many spinal cord injury patients continue to see results years after their injury.
4. Spinal Shock
You might be in for a surprise if you experience spinal shock following your spinal cord injury.
Spinal shock is when you temporarily lose all functions below your level of injury due to swelling of the spinal cord.
If your spinal cord swells too much, it can cut off blood flow to areas below the injury, causing the loss of functions.
Once the swelling starts to die down, functions may gradually return and you will have a better indication of what you truly can and can’t control.
It’s important to consider spinal shock following a spinal cord injury because many people believe they have complete injuries due to the total loss of function; it isn’t until functions start to return that they find out it was spinal shock and that they actually have incomplete SCIs.
Quadriplegic Recovery Stories
Need to see recovery from quadriplegia to believe it? Check out these 2 recovery stories!
Hayden’s Quadriplegia Recovery Story
Hayden sustained a C4 spinal cord injury after getting tackled in a football game.
He was paralyzed from his shoulders down and had to undergo surgery to stabilize his spinal cord.
After three and a half months in an intensive rehabilitation program, he was able to walk again.
Kedar’s Quadriplegia Recovery Story
Kedar’s cervical spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the chest down.
The video above shows his rehabilitation progress over three years.
He gradually transitions from using a wheelchair to standing, from standing to training on parallel bars, from parallel bars to using a walker, and from walker to elbow crutches.
Slowly, he was weaned off assistive devices and learned to walk on his own. Kedar proves that even years after spinal cord injury, quadriplegic recovery is possible if you continue to diligently work for it.
Understanding Quadriplegic Recovery After Spinal Cord Injury
One of the most crucial parts of recovering from quadriplegia is to be aware of your body.
This means keeping track of returning sensations or movements and developing them through massed practice.
Every time you move, a set of neural pathways from your spinal cord injury to your muscles are activated. The more you repeat that movement, the stronger the pathways get, and the more comfortable the movement becomes.
Ultimately, individuals with SCI must retrain their body, brain, and spinal cord to work in sync again.
Although the spinal cord cannot heal itself after injury, it is capable of rewiring and reconstructing neural circuitries through axonal sprouting from undamaged neurons. This allows functions affected by SCI to be significantly improved.
Hopefully, this article helped you understand what makes recovery from quadriplegia possible. Good luck!
Featured image: ©iStock.com/Antonio_Diaz