Paraplgia & Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

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Roughly 11,000 people each year are diagnosed with paraplegia. Paraplegia is generally the result of a spinal cord injury, birth defect, or degenerative disease. This life-altering condition refers to the loss of function in one’s lower extremities due to spinal cord injury. This typically includes the legs and trunk area, though the level of function loss can differ.

Different sections of your spinal cord are responsible for controlling specific bodily sensations and functions. The sections that can result in paraplegia if damaged are the thoracic, lumbar, and sacral regions. On the human body, this would roughly range from the middle of the shoulder blades to the top of the pelvis.

Complete Paraplegia

Contrary to what many people think, “complete” paraplegia does not imply that the spinal cord was severed. Complete paraplegia means that function at the T-1 level of the spinal cord or below is limited or absent. Also, despite what the name implies, “complete” paraplegia does not necessarily mean that all function is lost.

In severe instances of complete paraplegia, respiratory function may become complicated. This can require the use of a ventilator. In other cases, paraplegia may result in sleep apnea, which can cause abnormal breathing patterns at night.

Incomplete Paraplegia

When a person has incomplete paraplegia, they experience a partial loss of sensory and motor functions to their lower body.

In some cases, individuals with complete paraplegia will regain sensory and bodily function to the affected regions. Their symptoms will be diagnosed as incomplete paraplegia instead. However, it is currently not possible for doctors to predict gains in function for those with paraplegia.

Complications

The spinal cord is the central pathway that many important signals use to travel throughout the body. A severe spinal cord injury can lead to complications beyond the loss of lower bodily function.

Fortunately, the current medical treatment and prevention practices can minimize some of the effects that would have been life threatening decades ago.

Common complications for those with paraplegia, both complete and incomplete, include:

  • Bowel and bladder dysfunction
  • Male infertility
  • Tissue inflammation and chronic pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Skin breakdowns
  • Osteoporosis
  • Bone fractures
  • Respiratory infections (common in injuries T-4 and above)
  • Phantom pain
  • Autonomic dysreflexia

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for paraplegia. Short term treatment is geared towards preserving function of the spine. This includes surgery and immediate rehabilitation, which is intended to reduce the swelling of tissue. Each spinal cord injury case is different; therefore treatment is tailored towards the patient’s specific symptoms.

Many patients with paraplegia end up using a wheelchair for their entire lives. However, some patients can use leg braces, which allow for greater freedom of movement. Some people regain enough muscle control to walk with a cane or otherwise unassisted.

Long term treatment is intended to allow the patient to regain function. Physical and emotional therapy is used to help the patient adjust to everyday life again. Studies have shown that the best hope for recovery includes early physical therapy.

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