Take a minute to think about how much you rely on your ability to use your arms and legs on a daily basis. Some injuries impact the victim’s entire future, such as spinal cord injury.
A higher level spinal cord injury can result in the person becoming paralyzed, requiring a complete restructuring of their life. Even the smallest of tasks become difficult to impossible. Life goes on, and they learn to adapt, but their independence and quality of life is altered forever.
Degrees of quadriplegic injury
Quadriplegia is an injury to the spinal cord and nerves that control both the upper and lower body. (Paraplegia is effects only the legs and lower.) Quadriplegia results from an injury to the cervical vertebrae in the spine (the neck area).
- The highest level injuries, at the C1 or C2 vertebrae, affect not only the limbs but the ability to breathe. The person may be ventilator-dependent, requiring an electrical device to trigger breathing. The actor Christopher Reeve had such a high cervical injury, and needed a ventilator.
- An injury at the C3 or C4 vertebrae usually means the person has no movement or feeling in all four limbs (quadriplegia). Some people retain enough movement in the shoulders and neck to activate a device that helps them breathe and communicate.
- At C5, the person may retain mobility in the shoulders and upper arms, but not the use of their wrists or hands. They may be able to perform many independent functions, including feeding themselves.
- At C6, the person may have some use of their wrists or even their hands, but with little strength or fine motor control.
- At the C7 or C8 vertebrae, the person may be paraplegic but retain full use of their hands and arms, and some or all function in the torso.
Quadriplegia does not always mean complete paralysis
In some instances quadriplegia causes only partial paralysis of the limbs and torso. Even in these cases, the impacts are considerable. Quadriplegia has to do with the loss of function and sensation. If there is an incomplete injury instead of a complete injury to the spinal cord, there is a chance that some function or sensation might remain in one or more of the limbs.
Other impacts of a cervical spine injury
When the spinal cord is damaged in the neck area, the bodily functions in the torso are likely going to be impacted. These can include the ability to control bowel and bladder functions. Coupled with the inability to move the arms, this means that a person who is quadriplegic will be fully dependent upon others for personal hygiene matters and routine tasks of daily living. The inability to move often leads to collateral medical problems, such as pneumonia and disorders of bones or internal organs.
Quadriplegia impacts the whole person and not just from a physical standpoint. Being fully dependent upon others is difficult to cope with. This can lead to depression and other mental health issues for people who have suffered a spinal cord injury.
A quadriplegic injury also has a profound impact on spouses and family members. It changes family dynamics, creates financial hardships and puts stress and strain on those caregivers.