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What is the Difference Between Tetraplegia and Paraplegia?


Spinal cord injuries are extremely serious and can sometimes be fatal. You may have heard of someone driving into shallow water and injuring their spinal cord. Spinal cord injuries often occur in car accidents in which the driver received a blow to the head.

About 5.5 million people in the United States live with paralysis in which one loses the ability to move some or all of their body. Although there are some forms of physical therapy and treatments one can undergo to gain slight functioning after a spinal cord injury, the majority of patients will never return back to their normal lifestyles. There is no way to reverse a spinal cord injury. 

Effects of a Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries often lead to a lack of sensation and strength for one’s entire lifetime. This is why it is so important to protect your head and neck when performing dangerous acts or in the ocean. One may lose a all or some movement, a loss of bowel or bladder control, random spasms, changes in sexual function, pain or intense stinging in various locations of the body, and difficulty breathing and coughing.

The severity of the injury and where and how the injury occured will be reviewed by professional doctors and surgeons. The severity of a spinal cord injury is called “the completeness” in which “complete” refers to when a patient’s body is fully compromised from the neck down. An “incomplete spinal cord injury” refers to a patient that has some motor and sensory function after a spinal cord injury. 

Paralysis from a spinal cord injury can also be referred to as tetraplegia or paraplegia. A patient’s health care team and doctors will perform various tests to determine which kind of spinal injury the patient has endured. If a patient suffers a tetraplegia spinal cord injury, he or she will lose feeling or strength in the arms, trunk, pelvic organs, hands, and legs. One who suffers from paraplegia will lose feeling in the trunk, legs, and pelvic organs.

The patient’s hands and upper body will not be compromised. Sometimes, you may think that your head or neck injury is not that serious, but you should always seek medical attention after a blow to the head. 

Anatomy of the Spinal Cord

The spinal cord is divided into four regions: the cervical spine, the lumbar spine, the sacral spine, and the thoracic spine. If you believe that someone may have injured their spinal cord, it is important that you do not move them. Transporting them may cause more pain and suffering after the accident. It is imperative that you call 911 right away, even if he or she is responsive. It is also important that you stabilize their head to make sure that their neck does not move. 

A cervical spine injury will result in one losing strength and control of the head and neck region. This may cause one to have an inability to move their upper body to the capacity of which they could before the accident. This is the most severe level of a spinal cord injury.

Another kind of spinal cord injury is a Thoracic spinal cord injury, which affects the chest and mid-abdominal muscles. Typically, one is able to move their arms and hands after this kind of spinal cord injury. Lumbar spinal cord injuries can impair one’s ability to move their hips and legs, while Sacral spinal cord injuries affect the hips, pelvic organs, and thighs.

Determining a Spinal Cord Injury

If you or a loved one suffers from a head or neck injury, they will most likely go through a variety of scans and tests to determine the kind of spinal cord injury. Doctors will most likely use MRI, CAT, and X-Ray scans to locate any dislocations to the spinal cord, broken bones, blood vessel damage, and blood clots.

While some patients suffering from a spinal cord injury may be taken into surgery, others may receive a corticosteroid injection that can alleviate the symptoms of a head and neck injury. This injection can improve blood flow, reduce inflammation, and preserve nerve function in the area. 

Risks of a Spinal Cord Injury

Although anyone can suffer from a spinal cord injury, there are a few factors that can predispose one to being categorized as at high risk for this type of injury. Spinal cord injuries are often seen in men more than women. About 20% of women in the United States suffer from spinal cord injuries. Age is also a risk factor as those who fall into the category between the ages of 16 to 30 have a higher risk of enduring a head and neck injury.

People who fall in between these ages tend to be categorized at high risk for spinal cord injuries due to mental and physical development. Furthermore, people between the ages of 16 to 30 tend to perform dangerous acts and can be reckless at times.

Many children refuse to use proper headgear and take precaution when riding bikes or other forms of motorized vehicles. Alcohol use is also a leading cause of spinal cord injuries in the United States. Whether you are drinking and driving or fall into the road, alcohol impairs one’s motor skills which can be detrimental. 

Preventing a Spinal Cord Injury

There are a few ways that you or a loved one can prevent a spinal cord injury. As mentioned previously, one’s age can place them at a greater risk of suffering a head and neck injury. It is imperative that parents ensure that their children use helmets and knee and elbow pads when riding a bike. Before jumping into the ocean, make sure you check the depth of the water as the time of day can affect sea levels. You should never dive into a pool unless the water is at least twelve feet deep. Read the signs before diving; it could save your life. 

Complete spinal cord injuries tend to be permanent while incomplete spinal cord injuries may allow one to regain some function over time. Many patients who suffer from an incomplete spinal cord injury will undergo years of physical therapy and rehabilitation to regain some function.

There are a few treatments that are in the works and development to help patients who have suffered from spinal cord injuries. One treatment is Neural prostheses, which is also known as artificial body parts. A Neural prosthesis replaces a lost or damaged nerve. An electronic device is able to connect the remaining nerves that are still functioning, which may allow one with an incomplete spinal cord injury to regain some movement and strength. 

Those who may not be so lucky will have to learn how to use wheelchairs or other forms of transportation for the rest of their lives. One’s life expectancy after a spinal cord injury depends on the severity of the injury. If you or a loved one suffer from a serious spinal cord injury, you will most likely be on a ventilator for the rest of your life.

Many patients will live in pain for the rest of their lives, which can be debilitating and bring about mental health issues. Adapting to life after a spinal cord injury is upsetting and hard. Having a spinal cord injury may change your mobility, but you can still have a good quality of life if you are able to breathe, eat, and talk on your own. Many patients grieve the loss of their past abilities, bringing them to believe that they have little to no purpose in the world.

If you or a loved one feels this way, join a support group and discuss your feelings with a therapist. It is difficult to enjoy life if you are suffering from depression and grief.