Quadriplegia, which is sometimes called tetraplegia, is a form of paralysis that affects the body from the neck down. It is caused by damage to the spinal cord, the part of the body responsible for transporting electrical impulses to and from the brain. When the brain is unable to receive and transmit messages to the body, a person who is completely conscious and aware of his or her surroundings is unable to control his or her body below the head.
Sometimes quadriplegics are able to move their arms, but they cannot control their hands. In other cases, the condition can affect the neck and the quadriplegic must have assistance to be able to breath.
Health Concerns for Quadriplegics
Unfortunately, in addition to having severely limited movement, quadriplegics must also be concerned with other health risks. Common health concerns for someone with quadriplegia include:
Breathing issues are especially common in the early stages of a spinal cord injury. Many quadriplegics require the assistance of a ventilator in order to breath. Some also receive a pacemaker that stimulates the nerves of the diaphragm. Over time, some quadriplegics learn to breathe on their own.
There is also a greater risk for quadriplegics to develop respiratory infections. Most take medication and practice breathing exercises on a regular basis to prevent infection.
It might seem impossible, but quadriplegics can experience pain throughout their bodies. Many call this “phantom pain,” which is similar to what an amputee experiences where his or her amputated body part once was.
A quadriplegic is not able to actually experience pain or any external sensation, but many report feelings of tingling, burning, lightning bolts, or pins-and-needles. Some have even reported feeling as if something is crawling on their skin.
These sensations can be extremely unpleasant and frustrating. Medication is available to lessen the effects of the phantom sensations, and there are also chiropractic and physical therapy treatments that help.
Autonomic dysreflexia can be a life-threatening condition. Experienced by many quadriplegics, it occurs when the body reacts to an unconscious sense of irritation by increasing blood pressure and lowering the heart rate.
Essentially, pain is being experienced on an unconscious level, so the brain is aware but the person does not realize what is happening. The external stimuli is real, but the brain does not consciously register pain or discomfort. Autonomic dysreflexia can cause symptoms such as nausea, headache, sweating, and goose bumps. The condition can be triggered by a full bladder or bowel, pressure sores, sexual activity, gastrointestinal disorders, tight clothing, abrupt temperature changes, and injuries.
Unawareness of Pain or Injury
Since quadriplegics are unable to sense discomfort or pain, they can be exposed to dangerous stimuli without realizing it. It’s possible for a quadriplegic’s skin to be burned, frozen, punctured, scraped, or injured in some other way without the person knowing there is a problem.
It’s extremely important that caregivers test bath water and closely examine other items before exposing a quadriplegic, since he or she will be unable to react and can suffer severe injuries in a short period of time.
Despite quadriplegia being a permanent condition, rehabilitation is still important for those who experience a spinal cord injury. The goal of rehabilitation is to restore as much mobility as possible and help the patient learn to live with his or her limitations. Varying degrees of independence are possible – such as learning to breathe without mechanical assistance – but it takes time and requires a great deal of effort on the quadriplegic’s part.
Physical therapy is also effective for helping to prevent muscle atrophy and to maintain circulation. Many of the same challenges people face when their movement is limited on a temporary basis, such as bed sores or poor circulation, are chronic problems for those with quadriplegia.
Today, rehabilitation includes functional neuromuscular stimulation (FNS), which uses electrical stimulation to active the undamaged nerves in the paralyzed part of the body, causing the muscles to contract. It’s possible for a quadriplegic to do things that years ago would have never seemed possible as part of therapy, such as riding a stationary bike with the assistance of FNS to help retain muscle mass and stimulating circulation.
It’s all too common for quadriplegia to be caused by another person’s negligence. If you or a loved one suffered a spinal cord injury that resulted in the loss of use of the body from the neck down, compensation is available to help with medical costs, lost wages, and pain and suffering.