Tetraplegia definition

What is Tetraplegia?

Spinal cord injuries take many forms and vary in how severely they affect the individual. Even a small amount of damage to the cord could lead to problems such as loss of sensation and reduced mobility.

In more severe cases, complete damage to the spinal cord means a major disability such as tetraplegia. This happens when the spinal cord injury level is high up on the spine, causing significant mobility and sensation loss for all four limbs.

Many tetraplegics have full paralysis below the level of the neck leading to major challenges in their day-to-day living.

Tetraplegia vs Quadriplegia

Any definition of tetraplegia usually includes the term quadriplegia. The simple fact is that these two are the same and are interchangeable. It’s just their derivation that is different. ‘Quadri’ comes from the Latin for ‘four’, whereas ‘Tetra’ comes from the Greek language.

What Causes Tetraplegia?

According to available statistics, 12,500 people in the US sustain a spinal cord injury each year. It’s estimated that around 47% of these injuries result in tetraplegia and most of these are caused by accidents of one kind or another.

  • Over a third of SCIs are caused by motor vehicle accidents
  • 28.5% are caused by falls
  • 14.5% are caused because of violence
  • 9.2% are caused during sporting accidents
  • The vast majority (84%) of SCIs happen to men

In the USA, well over half of sporting-related SCIs are sustained as a result of a diving accident. The majority of these kinds of injuries also affect younger people who are more likely to be involved in contact or ‘dangerous’ sports.

While most spinal cord injuries are caused by accidents or physical trauma, other health problems such as a tumour or spinal cord infection can also lead to damage to this crucial part of the body.

Symptoms of Tetraplegia

Tetraplegia also known as quadriplegia

The main symptoms of tetraplegia are loss of function and sensation in all four limbs of the body. Individuals will generally lose sensation below the level where the injury occurs, and in the case of tetraplegics, this is the cervical or neck region.

Symptoms can vary depending on a wide range of factors such as the severity of the injury, the age of the person and their health status.

If the tetraplegic patient retains some sensation, they may suffer from chronic pain. Pins and needles are also quite common. In other cases, the loss of feeling is complete and this can be permanent in many cases.

Along with loss of sensation, there is also a lack of movement below the area of injury which means a patient is often completely paralysed. As well as this, spasticity may be an issue. This involves the involuntary firing of the nerves to the muscles causing uncontrolled and erratic movement.

Not all the symptoms of tetraplegia relate to the injured area and the four limbs. Autonomic responses such as bladder and bowel control, breathing and heart rate can also be affected and need to be monitored. In many cases, medication is needed to maintain these important functions.

Tetraplegic Individuals may also suffer from secondary issues such as infections due to bed sores. In addition, it is sometimes the case that the individual with the injury may have mental health challenges to deal with, such as anxiety and depression.

Living with tetraplegia

Man with tetraplegia in wheelchair

Living with tetraplegia is not easy and many individuals will have to adjust to their condition and the challenges that it poses. There is currently no way to reverse the damage that leads to tetraplegia, though advances in spinal cord injury treatment options are constantly being made.

From a medical point of view, once the individual’s condition has stabilised, much of the subsequent treatment and support is about controlling secondary health problems such as difficulty breathing or preventing blood clots. Patients will undergo a long period of rehabilitation and physiotherapy to ensure they have the best chances of a recovery.

Some patients may need to have medication either in the short term or for the rest of their lives in order to help with problems such as chronic pain, spasticity and bladder control.

Finding the right support is important for all SCI patients and tetraplegics in particular. The good news is there is plenty of advice and help online with resources and communities that meet on a regular basis around the US.

Technology is also coming to the aid of tetraplegics, including the development of lighter and improved electric wheelchairs, computer adaptations and various electronic gadgets all designed to aid independence and improve quality of life.


Tetraplegia is a serious condition that occurs following an injury high up in the neck or cervical region of the spine. The damage generally means that loss of sensation and movement in the arms and legs is almost inevitable and lifelong.

While there are many challenges to overcome, the support and technological aids available to tetraplegics today has improved dramatically.