Full paralysis vs partial paralysis

Partial Paralysis vs Full Paralysis After a Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries (SCI) will generally result in some kind of paralysis, but the location, severity and level of the injury will largely determine the future outcome and what kind of support the individual will require.

An injury higher up on the spinal cord, for example, typically will present more severe consequences than one lower down.

When it comes to spinal cord injuries, the terms ‘partial paralysis’ and ‘full paralysis’ may come up frequently.

Here we take a closer look at the distinction between these two types of paralysis and what challenges individuals are likely to face as they approach recovery.

What is Partial Paralysis?

Partial paralysis refers to cases whereby some feeling, movement and/or control can occur in an individual’s paralyzed muscles following their injury.

Often this will occur when there is damage to the spine, usually in the lumbar region, which means the feet, legs and waist are unable to move. The individual is, however, able to move their upper body including the arms and head and will generally have no issues with swallowing or lung function.

Partial paralysis exhibits different levels and loss of function will depend on the extent of the damage. For example, an individual might have some sensation or movement in the legs and be able to walk with the aid of a stick or frame. Less severe damage may leave an individual with tingling sensations and poor mobility that could get better over time.

On the other hand, complete damage to the spine in the lumbar region can leave an individual with little or no sensation or movement below the waist.

What is Total (Full) Paralysis?

In cases whereby an individual has full or total paralysis, this means that they cannot move or control their paralyzed muscles as a result of their injury nor have any feeling in these areas.

In these cases, the individual will be able to make some movements, such as being able to speak and move their head a little.

The area below the injury, however, is severely affected.

  • The individual could have little or no sensation from the neck down.
  • They will likely have trouble with bladder and bowel control.
  • Issues with swallowing and breathing may also be likely to occur.

Those with total paralysis generally require a lot more help with daily living compared to someone with partial paralysis who is able to lead a more independent life, albeit with the help of assistive technology such as a wheelchair.

Determining Factors Related to Partial and Total Paralysis

Anatomy of the Spine
Anatomy of the human Spine

The biggest determining factor by far is where on the spine the injury occurs. In short, if the damage is sustained higher up on the spinal cord, there are more parts of the body below the point of injury which can be affected as a result

A spinal cord injury in the cervical area, for example, means the individual will have major challenges including issues with breathing and being able to swallow, as well as loss of mobility in the arms and legs.

Another factor with any spinal cord injury is the extent of the damage. If the spinal cord is fully severed, then no signals at all will be able to travel from the brain to the body below that damage via the nerves.

If it is not fully severed, some signals may get through, but others might not.

In either cases, spinal cord injuries are highly unpredictable and it can take some time after the injury to understand the full extent of the damage and the long term impact it will have on the body.

Can Paralysis Change Over Time?

Whilst some people may recover some or even all their function, the vast majority of individuals with a spinal cord injury will remain paralysed and will have to learn to cope with their condition for the rest of their lives.

A lot depends on the extent and type of the injury and any recovery is generally down to a host of different approaches including effective medical care and rehabilitation techniques.

Physiotherapy can help to improve mobility improve general physical health after a spinal cord injury. Maintaining a positive outlook is also essential, as it can have a significant impact on how the individual sees themselves living with a disability and can help them manage their condition more effectively.