Paraplegia definition

What is Paraplegia?

Paraplegia is most often caused by a traumatic injury to the lower part of the spine such as the thoracic or lumbar regions. The extent of injury will vary from case to case, but living with paraplegia, whilst challenging, is by no means insurmountable.

When someone sustains any serious spinal cord injury, much depends, in terms of the prognosis, on where the damage has occurred. The standard paraplegia definition is a sub-classification of paralysis and points to loss or impairment of lower body motor function.

It’s a condition that is also sometimes defined as partial paralysis. The individual, for example, may not be able to move their body below the waist but has full motion above the waist.

The extent of the injury and the road to recovery will depend on a wide variety of factors.

What Causes Paraplegia?

Paraplegia is caused by damage to the brain or spinal cord or both. In many cases, it follows traumatic injury following an accident to the thoracic, lumbar or sacral regions of the spine. Injuries higher up on the spinal cord, resulting in damage to the cervical region near the neck, are more likely to result in tetraplegia rather than paraplegia.

Damage to the spine means that signals cannot get from the brain to the lower extremities such as the legs. Paraplegia often also results in the impairment of bodily functions such as bladder and bowel control.

Together with loss of movement below the waist and reduced function in other areas of the body, the individual will also experience a loss of sensation.

Paraplegia x-ray

Regarding spinal cord injuries, there is a distinction to be made between complete and incomplete injuries. In the latter, the damage is not as severe and some messages can be transmitted to the lower extremities. This means that the individual may have some movement and might, for example, be able to walk with the help of a frame rather than using a wheelchair.

  • Whilst the physical function of a person’s lower body is not damaged, the loss of nerve signals means that they are not able to operate normally.
  • The vast majority of spinal cord injuries resulting in paraplegia are from trauma, the most prevalent being vehicle accidents and falls.
  • In a smaller number of cases, paraplegia can be caused by medical health problems such as stroke, genetic disorders, infections or tumors near or on the spine.

Symptoms of Paraplegia

The symptoms of paraplegia vary from person to person according to the extent and location of the injury. Common issues that a paraplegic will experience include:

  • Loss of sensation and the ability to move their legs.
  • Problems with bladder and bowel function.
  • Phantom pain and feelings in the lower part of the body.
  • Potential loss of sexual function and a lowering of libido.

There may also be other secondary issues that the individual has to contend with, such as infections and skin problems that arise as a result of a more sedentary lifestyle. The individual may also be at risk of depression, particularly in the early stages of the injury when so many life adjustments need to be made. 

Treatment of Paraplegia

Treatment options for paraplegia will vary from person to person. The initial challenge is to stabilize the injury and ensure no more damage occurs. This may involve surgery as well as keeping the patient immobile whilst the spinal vertebrae and cord heal. Medication is used to control pain and prevent secondary issues such as blood clots from occurring.

Once the individual has been stabilized, a range of physical and occupational therapies can be used to help them cope with the aftermath of the injury. Learning to live with paraplegia can be a long process but there is a lot of support available nowadays that can make a huge difference.

Living with Paraplegia

Paraplegic using a wheelchair

Many people learn to adapt and live life to the full after having recovered from the initial stages of a spinal cord injury which results in paraplegia. Some people may be able to walk again with an aid, others might find themselves using a wheelchair for the rest of their life.

Much depends on the nature of the injury and which functions have been affected. Learning to use a wheelchair and gain independence is important for maintaining good mental health for most individuals. Other issues such as bladder or bowel incontinence are more challenging, but this is an area which can be managed effectively once the individual understands their condition.

Loss of sexual function is another potential challenge to contend with, but again there are measures that can be taken and treatments available which are used to help the individual improve their situation.

Undoubtedly, there are multiple challenges for anyone with paraplegia. The good news is that there is more support and evidence-based solutions out there today than ever before which can make a huge difference to the outlook for the patient.