Everything You Need to Know About Paraplegia

March 08,2022 |
Man in his wheelchair looking out a window.

Your spinal cord is a delicate system that’s comprised of millions of nerve bundles to help facilitate communication between your brain and your body. Injury and chronic conditions can impact the spinal cord and lead to problems with mobility, such as in the case of paraplegia. Paraplegia is a form of paralysis that occurs in the lower half of the body. The severity and extent of this paralysis tends to depend on the location of the damage and can either affect one side of the body or both. To help you better understand this form of paralysis, here’s everything you need to know about paraplegia.


What is Paraplegia?

As mentioned, paraplegia is a type of paralysis that affects the lower half of an individual’s body. Individuals who are living with paraplegia are unable to move their toes, feet, legs, and sometimes the abdomen. The paralysis occurs from the waist down and can be either complete, incomplete, or hereditary spastic.

Complete Paraplegia

Complete paraplegia refers to paralysis that affects both legs. Individuals affected by this type of paraplegia are unable to move their legs and may also experience a complete loss of sensation. In many instances, complete paraplegia can also affect the bladder and lead to incontinence issues or a loss of voluntary control.

Incomplete or Partial Paraplegia

In this type of paraplegia, paralysis doesn’t fully affect both of the legs. One leg may experience complete paraplegia while the other retains some ability to function. It can be caused by a degenerative disease and lead to complete paralysis or occur after an individual suffering from complete paralysis has undergone extensive physical therapy.

Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia

Hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) is a genetic disorder that can lead to the progressive weakness of the legs. Oftentimes, in addition to paralysis, HSP is associated with other symptoms such as impaired vision, ataxia, cognitive impairment, or even epilepsy. If someone in your family has HSP, there is a risk for further generations to inherit it.

Paraplegia is not the only type of paralysis that can affect an individual. Monoplegia can affect only one arm or leg while hemiplegia affects one arm and one leg on the same side of the body. Paraplegia then affects the lower half of your body from waist down and quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia, can affect both of your arms and both of your legs. The level of paralysis often depends on the location of the spinal cord injury or progression of a degenerative disease.


Symptoms of Paraplegia

When an individual develops paraplegia due to a spinal cord injury, the symptoms become apparent fairly quickly. However, they aren’t always immediate. Sometimes, they can develop slowly over the course of a few days. This is also true in individuals who experience paraplegia due to degenerative disorders. Some of the most common symptoms of paraplegia include:

  • A loss of sensation in the lower body
  • Impaired mobility
  • Pain in the lower body
  • Difficulty with bladder or bowel function
  • Bedsores or skin problems
  • Autonomic dysreflexia
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Chronic pain
  • Weight gain
  • Depression


Contact your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms, especially if you have recently experienced an injury or been in an accident.


What Causes Paraplegia?

Nearly every case of paraplegia is the result of some type of damage to the spinal cord, brain, or a combination of the two. This can occur from car or motorcycle accidents, falls, gunshot wounds, sporting activities, or surgical injuries. If you’re in an accident, seek medical attention immediately. If you see someone suffer an injury, do not try to move them. Instead, call for help and wait for the paramedics to arrive.

Spinal cord injuries that lead to paraplegia tend to be localized within the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral area of the spine, which is why the paralysis occurs where it does. Due to swelling, bruising, or breakages, spinal cord injuries result in a disruption of signals carried between the brain and the rest of the body, thus limiting an individual’s ability to move. In addition to the paralysis, the lack of signals creates a loss in sensation. The inability to move or feel anything past the point of the injury site is due to the lack of motor neurons that are firing along the synapses.

In addition to trauma-related injuries, paraplegia may occur from tumor development, certain infections, stroke, multiple sclerosis, or diseases of the blood vessels. If you believe you’re at risk for developing paraplegia caused by a chronic condition, talk to your doctor about proactive care and how to reduce the likelihood of paralyzing events. Congenital disorders such as spina bifida may also result in paraplegia.

Risk Factors of Paraplegia

Most cases of paraplegia occur due to accident, injury, or trauma, so individuals who partake in risky behavior have a higher chance of becoming a paraplegic. This puts men at a higher risk, since about 78% of new spinal cord injuries each year are males. The risk for paraplegia also increases with age, especially if an individual develops osteoporosis in their later years. Those who have jobs that put them at risk of severe injuries, such as high-impact athletes, construction workers, or law enforcement officers, are also at a greater risk of paraplegia. If you’re concerned about your risk factors, or those of a loved one, talk to your doctor today.


Treatment Options for Individuals with Paraplegia

Paraplegia is often diagnosed using an array of tests. There is extensive medical imaging done across various machines—CT scan, MRI, X-ray—as well as neurological exams, electromyography tests, and a comprehensive overview of your medical history. If after these tests, your doctor determines that you have some degree of paraplegia, beginning treatment quickly is important to your overall longevity. However, it’s important to understand that paraplegia cannot be cured. It is a lifelong condition that is unlikely to be reversed. Undergoing treatment will help improve your overall quality of life and allow you to learn adaptive options that will give you the chance to improve your independence.

Physical therapy should be performed with a licensed professional to help you reduce lingering pain and build up the strength of muscles that you have control of. This reduces atrophy and helps improve your ability to perform tasks on your own. While the idea of exercising with a spinal cord injury can seem strange, physical therapy is one of the most important aspects of long-term treatment.

Additionally, you’ll begin undergoing occupational therapy to relearn how to do basic tasks with adaptive tools or limited dexterity. This will help you regain your independence, which can drastically improve your overall quality of life. Your doctor may also prescribe different medications to help you with any pain you experience or to reduce your risk of blood clots that can occur due to lack of movement. In some cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to alleviate certain symptoms or improve mobility. Each person has a different treatment plan that’s specific to their injury or cause of paraplegia, so it’s important to work with your doctor for a healthy long-term recovery.


Long-Term Effects of Paraplegia

Life after spinal cord injuries can be difficult to adjust to, especially if they result in paraplegia. Over time, paralysis takes a toll on the body and can result in muscle spasticity and atrophy, digestive system issues, urological problems, and an increased risk of infection. These are all caused by the ongoing disruption in signaling between the brain and muscles or organs. Similarly, individuals living with a spinal cord injury often experience problems such as weight gain, high blood sugar, changes in cholesterol, and heart disease. These are caused by the sedentary lifestyle that follows paralysis.

There are treatment options available, and complications can be managed, but it’s important to maintain an open line of communication with your doctor to ensure you’re getting the best care for your current state. If you notice any sign of infection or a problem, contact your doctor immediately. If you’re struggling with your mental health, reach out to a professional and try to find a support group to bond with other individuals who are experiencing life as a paraplegic.

Paraplegia is a condition that affects individuals for the duration of their lives. Due to this permanence, it can have a substantial impact on a person’s overall outlook, independence, and day-to-day functions. While the risk of complications with paraplegia varies between individuals, there are long-term treatment options that can help improve your overall quality of life. To help those living with paraplegia, Byram Healthcare offers a wide range of urology supplies and incontinence care. Browse our products today and have them discreetly delivered at your door—most orders ship within 2-3 days.