Everything You Need to Know About Tetraplegia and Quadriplegia

March 08,2022 |
Person with quadriplegia hanging out with friends.

Tetraplegia is one of the most inclusive forms of paralysis. Also known as quadriplegia, it affects all four limbs and in severe cases, the thoracic region as well. Unfortunately, once an individual experiences this type of paralysis, the damage is mostly permanent. While some people have noticed some improvements in mobility with long-term therapy, it’s not the norm. To help you better understand this type of paralysis, here’s everything you need to know about tetraplegia and quadriplegia.


What is Tetraplegia / Quadriplegia?

Since tetraplegia affects all four limbs alongside the torso, it is considered more serious than paraplegia. In many cases, individuals affected are not able to move at all, aside from performing facial expressions. This is not because their limbs are damaged. In fact, those living with tetraplegia tend to have perfectly healthy body parts aside from the muscle atrophy present. The paralysis stems from damage that occurs in the spinal cord, thus disrupting the brain-body signals that are required to process movement. Most instances of tetraplegia develop following a spinal cord injury.

Common Symptoms of Tetraplegia

Symptoms of tetraplegia may occur gradually, or immediately following an injury. The most identifiable symptoms of tetraplegia are a numbness or loss of feeling throughout the body, urinary retention, bowel dysfunction, paralysis that spreads across the legs and the arms, difficulty breathing, or problems with maintaining an upright position. If you notice any of these symptoms and have not already been diagnosed as a quadriplegic, call your doctor immediately.

Different Types of Quadriplegia

Not all people who experience tetraplegia/quadriplegia are the same. Some individuals may be able to move their limbs to a certain degree, while others maintain sensory abilities. The three primary types of quadriplegia include incomplete, complete, and spastic.


  • Incomplete Quadriplegia – individuals with incomplete quadriplegia may still have a slight degree of function or sensory abilities in their limbs.


  • Complete Quadriplegia – this type of paralysis engulfs the individual completely and movement only remains in the head and face.


  • Spastic Quadriplegia – individuals with spastic quadriplegia are unable to move their limbs, but they may experience muscle spasms or hyperactive reflexes periodically.


Causes of Tetraplegia and Quadriplegia

The most common cause of tetraplegia and quadriplegia is a spinal cord injury. The extent of damage and location of an SCI can determine the severity of paralysis, and most occur due to auto accidents, falls, and gunshot wounds. However, there are also several inherited or congenital conditions that can lead to quadriplegia. Traumatic brain injuries can also result in complete paralysis.

Spinal Cord Damages

As mentioned, one of the most common causes of quadriplegia is damage to the spinal cord, which is made up of different vertebrae. The location of the damage is what determines the degree of paralysis and the higher that trauma occurs, the more severe the paralysis tends to be. When damage occurs in the lower area of the spine, many individuals experience paraplegia instead of tetraplegia.

When damages occur across the C1, C2, or C3 vertebrae, which are closest to the skull, the risk of fatality increases. Those who survive after the incident tend to have complete paralysis that requires the use of breathing assistance. C4 damages can also reduce an individual’s control of their diaphragm and require breathing aids and lead to limited mobility or complete paralysis of the legs, arms, and torso. C5 damages can affect the vocal cords, but an individual may be able to breathe on their own. C6 damage is less likely to lead to a complete loss of motor function in the arms, but incontinence and paralysis in the legs, torso, and hands is still common. Damage to the C7 vertebrae doesn’t often cause tetraplegia, but individuals can still experience burning sensations in their extremities or paraplegia.

  Inherited Conditions

 There are also a few different types of diseases and conditions that can lead to quadriplegia. These are considered degenerative diseases and are unfortunately, incurable. The two most common conditions that lead to quadriplegia include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and muscular dystrophy.

  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a type of progressive neurogenerative disorder that results in the continuous degeneration of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Although rare, this disease is incurable and eventually leads to the complete loss of muscle control. Symptoms often progress slowly over time and can resemble small injuries from daily life, exercise, or even illness. However, once degeneration occurs, it cannot be reversed. If you have a family member with ALS, or any other risk factors, talk to your doctor today to learn more about diagnostic testing and prevention.

  • Muscular Dystrophy

Muscular dystrophy is also caused by the progressive weakness of an individual’s muscles. Over time, the fibers in your muscles slowly begin to wear out and stop responding to signals from your brain to move. This can lead to quadriplegia as the disease progresses, although there is no physical damage to the nervous system such as in individuals with ALS.

If you’re worried about your risk of developing tetraplegia, talk to your doctor today. There are preventative measures you can take to delay damage or further deterioration. However, swift action is important, especially in degenerative diseases. If you’re in an accident, or you see someone in an accident, stay where you are and never try to move someone as this could drastically increase damages incurred.


Reducing Your Risk of Tetraplegia / Quadriplegia

Since most cases of tetraplegia and quadriplegia occur due to motor accidents, risky behavior, or high-impact sports, the best way to lower your chances of developing paralysis is to be safe. Try to avoid doing things dangerously, especially in regard to driving erratically or diving in shallow waters. Always wear your seatbelt and if you participate in any sports, make sure that you wear the proper protective equipment. Motorcycle drivers should ensure that they have a strong, protective helmet alongside the appropriate jackets or gloves.

If you think that you may be at risk for congenital diseases, talk to your doctor about undergoing preventative screenings. This can help you catch diseases early and elongate the time between diagnosis and paralysis. Finally, always try to eat a healthy, nutritious diet to help support strong bones and live an active lifestyle to maintain muscle mass.


Life as a Quadriplegic

After receiving a quadriplegic diagnosis, the news can be difficult for both individuals and family members to grasp. This is a lifelong condition that will require a lot of changes to your routine. While paralysis is not a curable disease, there are ways to help you maintain a high quality of life. Following your doctor’s treatment plan, engaging in physical therapy, and taking the appropriate prescription medications are important. However, your treatment will depend on your level of paralysis and some individuals may not be able to partake in any degree of physical therapy at all. If possible, exercising with a spinal cord injury under the supervision of a licensed professional can help you retain some degree of strength in areas where you have limited mobility.

In severe cases, individuals with quadriplegia may lose the ability to speak normally. If this occurs, you can work with a speech therapist to try to retain some degree of communication. As technology increases, there are new assistive devices being developed to help with this, so talk to your doctor about your options. Individuals should also consider psychotherapy to help overcome any emotional difficulties that are associated with complete paralysis.

While rare, there are some treatments that are showing promising developments in individuals living with tetraplegia. There are various types of stem cell therapies and nerve transfer surgeries that may provide some improvements in mobility in individuals who qualify. However, these should not be relied upon as they still undergoing research and require more time to be definitively determined as helpful and safe. To learn more about these types of options, talk to your doctor and team of medical assistance.

Tetraplegia / Quadriplegia is a lifelong condition that causes irreversible damage. To reduce your risk of complications and long-term problems associated with this type of paralysis, it’s important to work with a caregiver and do things that help improve your quality of life. To assist you in your ongoing care, Byram Healthcare offers a wide range of urology supplies such as catheters and products for incontinence care. If you have any questions while browsing our products, reach out to a Byram representative for assistance.