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What is Paraplegia: Paraplegic Facts and Definition

  • Synopsis: Published: 2010-10-09 (Revised/Updated 2017-06-26) - Facts and definition regarding Paraplegia a paralysis of the lower half of the body including both leg, usually caused by damage to the spinal cord - Disabled World (Disabled World).

Paraplegia is defined as an impairment in motor or sensory function of the lower extremities. Paraplegia is usually caused by spinal cord injury or a congenital condition such as spina bifida that affects the neural elements of the spinal canal. The area of the spinal canal that is affected in paraplegia is either the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral regions. If all four limbs are affected by paralysis, tetraplegia or quadriplegia is the correct term. If only one limb is affected, the correct term is monoplegia.

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Quote: "Approximately 11,000 spinal cord injuries reported each year in the United States involve paraplegia."

Paraplegia, not to be confused with Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), is an impairment in motor or sensory function of the lower extremities.

When both legs and arms are affected, the condition is called Quadriplegia.

Paraplegia is usually the result of Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) or a congenital condition such as Spina Bifida which affects the neural elements of the spinal canal. The area of the spinal canal which is affected in paraplegia is either the thoracic, lumbar, or sacral regions. If both arms are also affected by paralysis, quadriplegia is the proper terminology. If only one limb is affected the correct term is monoplegia.

Immediately after the spinal cord injury, the loss of movement, sensation, and reflexes below the level of the spinal cord injury can occur. Sexual dysfunction and loss of bowel and bladder control may also occur, depending on where the spinal cord injury occurred and if the spinal cord was completely cut or partially cut.

The extent of the paralysis depends on the level of the spinal cord at which the damage occurs. For example, damage to the lowest area of the cord may result only in paralysis of the legs, whereas damage farther up on the cord causes possible loss of control over the muscles of the bladder and rectum as well or, if occurring even higher, may result in paralysis of all four limbs and loss of control over the muscles involved in breathing.

While some people with paraplegia can walk to a degree, many are dependent on wheelchairs or other supportive measures. Impotence and various degrees of urinary and fecal incontinence are very common in those affected.

Diseases that cause paraplegia or quadriplegia include spinal tuberculosis, syphilis, spinal tumors, multiple sclerosis, and poliomyelitis. Sometimes when the disease is treated and cured, the paralysis disappears, but usually the nerve damage is irreparable and paralysis is permanent. Treatment of paraplegia and quadriplegia is aimed at helping to compensate for the paralysis by means of mechanical devices and through psychological and physical therapy.

Approximately 11,000 spinal cord injuries reported each year in the United States involve paraplegia. Such events occur as a result of automobile and motorcycle accidents, sporting accidents, falls, and gunshot wounds.

Due to the decrease or loss of feeling or function in the lower extremities, paraplegia can contribute to a number of medical complications to include pressure sores (decubitus), thrombosis and pneumonia. Physiotherapy and various assistive technology, such as a standing frame, as well as vigilant self observation and care may aid in helping to prevent future and mitigate existing complications.

As paraplegia is most often the result of a traumatic injury to the spinal cord tissue and the resulting inflammation, other nerve related complications can and do occur. Cases of chronic nerve pain in the areas surrounding the point of injury are not uncommon. There is speculation that the "phantom pains" experienced by individuals suffering from paralysis could be a direct result of these collateral nerve injuries misinterpreted by the brain.

Life expectancy for people with paraplegia is lower than normal, but has continued to increase over the years. Death rates are significantly higher during the first years after the injury than the later years. This is especially true as the severity of the injury increases.

Awareness: SCI Awareness Information

Lime green awareness ribbonSpinal Cord Injury (SCI) awareness ribbon color is lime green, and the month of September is U.S. National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.

U.S. Congress recently acted to bring attention to spinal cord injury (SCI), passing a resolution making September National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month.

Statistics: Paraplegia & Quadriplegia (SCI)

  • Since 2005, motor vehicle crashes account for 42.1% of reported SCI cases. The next most common cause of SCI is falls, followed by acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds), and recreational sporting activities.
  • It is estimated that the annual incidence of spinal cord injury (SCI), not including those who die at the scene of the accident, is approximately 40 cases per million population in the U. S. or approximately 12,000 new cases each year.
  • People with a spinal cord injury are two to five times more likely to die prematurely than people without a spinal cord injury, with worse survival rates in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Mortality rates are significantly higher during the first year after injury than during subsequent years, particularly for severely injured persons.
  • The number of people in the United States who are alive in 2008 who have SCI has been estimated to be approximately 259,000 persons, with a range of 229,000 to 306,000 persons.
  • Over the last 15 years, the percentage of persons with incomplete tetraplegia has increased slightly while complete paraplegia has decreased slightly.
  • From 1973 to 1979, the average age at injury was 28.7 years, and most injuries occurred between the ages of 16 and 30. However, as the median age of the general population of the United States has increased by approximately 8 years since the mid-1970's, the average age at injury has also steadily increased over time. Since 2005, the average age at injury is 40.2 years.
  • Currently, 80.9% of spinal cord injuries reported to the national database have occurred among males.
  • Violence caused 13.3% of spinal cord injuries prior to 1980, and peaked between 1990 and 1999 at 24.8% before declining to only 15.1% since 2005.
  • The most frequent neurologic category at discharge of persons reported to the database is incomplete tetraplegia (30.1%), followed by complete paraplegia (25.6%), complete tetraplegia (20.4%), and incomplete paraplegia (18.5%).
  • Spinal cord injury is associated with lower rates of school enrollment and economic participation, and it carries substantial individual and societal costs.
  • Life expectancies for persons with SCI continue to increase, but are still somewhat below life expectancies for those with no spinal cord injury.

Source: National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC)

Related Information:

  1. Human Spinal Cord Picture C1 to S5 Vertebra
    The human spinal cord consists of nerves that connect the brain to nerves in the body. It is a superhighway for messages between the brain and the rest of the body.
  2. What is Quadriplegia and Paraplegia
    Definition of Quadriplegia and Paraplegia including interesting spinal cord injury (SCI) statistics.
  3. Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP) - Facts and Information - Thomas C. Weiss - (Apr 15, 2010)

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