Quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia, is thusly named because it affects all four limbs, plus the torso (quad originates from the Latin word for four). Most people with tetraplegia have significant paralysis below the neck, and many are completely unable to move. This form of paralysis is inevitably the product of damage high in the spinal cord, usually in the cervical spine between C1-C7. The higher the injury is, the more extensive the damage will be, and very high spinal cord injuries are often immediately fatal.
You might think that total paralysis of the arms and legs requires damage to the limbs, but most quadriplegics have perfectly healthy legs and arms. Instead, the problem begins in the brain or spinal cord, and occasionally in both. The spinal cord is charged with sending signals to and from the brain, while the brain processes and interprets these signals. Thus a spinal cord injury prevents the brain from sending an receiving these signals, while a brain injury undermines the brain's ability to process them.
Injuries that cause quadriplegia are unpredictable, since numerous complex structures are often involved. The delicate nature of the brain and spinal cord means there much we still don't understand about these organs. Research suggests, for example, that the brain can compensate for injuries in some areas, and even for extensive damage, but that recovery from injuries in other areas is virtually impossible.
For this reason, it can be difficult to give an accurate prognosis to people with quadriplegia. As the swelling at the site of the injury goes down, some function may return. Some tetraplegics even spontaneously recover. Surgery and other treatments can help, particularly if the surgeon is able to remove something that is compressing the spinal cord or impeding the brain's function.
Any injury high in the spinal cord or that affects multiple regions in the brain can lead to paralysis in all four limbs. Spinal cord injuries account for the majority of quadriplegia cases, with the leading causes of spinal cord injuries as follows:
In the 1970s, the average survivor of a spinal cord injury was just 29 years old, but now the age age has increased to 42. Most (82%) spinal cord injury survivors are men. 250,000 Americans currently live with spinal cord injuries, with about 12,500 new cases each year. A number of issues cause the remainder of injuries that lead to quadriplegia, though most such injuries are traumatic in nature.
Non-traumatic injuries are those that do not involve a sudden injury. For example, spinal cord infections and lesions, brain tumors, and some congenital defects can cause quadriplegia, particularly if left untreated. In some cases, quadriplegia caused by non-traumatic factors such as infections may be reversible, but only if the cause of your paralysis is caught sufficiently early to allow treatment.
Quadriplegia is an unpredictable condition that can change over time. Individual factors, such as the age at injury and overall health, as well as quality of care immediately following the injury, can greatly affect outcomes. Just as a doctor's estimate about how long a cancer patient might survive is not a guarantee, the prognosis your doctor gives you is merely a guess, not a promise or a final opinion.
Generally speaking, quadriplegics struggle with the following symptoms:
Though some quadriplegics experience significant improvements in symptoms, and even total cure, quadriplegia is not curable with treatment. This means that no surgical procedure, drug, or form of therapy can guarantee a return of functioning, and few quadriplegics will ever regain all functioning. Instead, the goals of treatment include improving the long-term prognosis, reducing immediate threats to your life and health, and teaching your brain and spinal cord how to work around the injury. Some treatment options include:
Spinal cord injuries are traumatic for patients and their families. They cause disruptive changes to every aspect of your life and there is a lot of new information to navigate and understand. Our experts have collected everything in one place to help you learn more about your injury, locate doctors and treatment centers, find financial support, and get assistance navigating your next move.