Tetraplegia may be better known as quadriplegia, a condition in which the arms and legs are paralyzed. The condition is usually the result of an injury, rather than an illness or a congenital condition.
A related condition to tetraplegia, called paraplegia, refers to the paralysis of just your legs and lower body.
There is currently no cure for tetraplegia, but the following treatments may help manage symptoms and reduce the risk of further complications:
- physical therapy
- other treatments
Tetraplegia can happen due to the following types of injuries:
- spinal cord
According to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), injury to one or more of the C-1 through C-8 vertebrae in particular can cause paralysis of your legs and feet, as well as your arms and hands.
In some cases, there may be partial paralysis of one or more limbs. Injury of the lumbar region of your spine is associated with paralysis of your lower body and legs.
Injuries to your spinal cord can make it difficult, or in some cases impossible, for brain signals that manage movement to reach your limbs.
Likewise, sensations from your limbs can be difficult or impossible to deliver to your brain for processing. This interference with communication is why limb movement can become affected.
Tetraplegia may also result from a stroke or other injury to brain tissue. Severe forms of cerebral palsy also may lead to tetraplegia or similar limb movement conditions.
Tetraplegia and paraplegia are among several types of paralysis, some involving complete immobility of your limbs and others partial movement or sensation in your arms or legs. Different types of paralysis include:
- Monoplegia. A type of paralysis that affects one limb, usually an arm, and may be caused by a spinal cord or brain injury, as well as a stroke, peripheral neuropathy, or neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis
- Hemiplegia. A kind of paralysis most often triggered by a brain or spinal cord injury that causes paralysis on one side of your body. Congenital hemiplegia is a form of this condition that appears at birth or soon afterward.
- Triplegia. Usually, this is the loss of movement in both legs and one arm (but can also involve both arms and one leg), usually brought on by a spinal cord injury that spared some nerve fibers.
- Quadriparesis. A condition characterized by a temporary or permanent weakness of all four limbs. Spinal injuries and various bacterial or viral infections can cause quadriparesis.
The primary symptom of tetraplegia is paralysis in all four limbs. But the interference in communication between your brain and other parts of your body, including your organs, can lead to other symptoms. Among them are:
- inability to sense heat or cold or touch
- sexual dysfunction
- pain caused by injury to nerves in your spinal cord
- coughing and shortness of breath
- muscle spasms
Further complications can also develop over time, in many cases due to a lack of movement or exercise. Some of these longer-term complications include:
- bed sores and other skin lesions caused by spending too much time seated or lying down in the same position
- muscle atrophy due to a lack of activity
- breathing difficulties that may eventually require a ventilator
- difficulty maintaining a healthy heart rate and blood pressure
For some people with tetraplegia, the recovery of some movement in the limbs is possible.
The location and severity of the injury will determine how extensive and long-lasting the symptoms are, as well as the type of treatment that may provide some relief.
Currently, there is no cure for tetraplegia. The symptoms resulting from the accident or injury are often permanent. Where nerve damage was not complete, the chance for some movement is possible.
Regaining the health and function of areas unaffected by the injury is usually the focus of recovery. For most people facing tetraplegia, round-the-clock care is likely to be necessary for the rest of their lives.
Treatment of tetraplegia often focuses on managing pain and other symptoms, and limiting the complications of the condition.
Reducing inflammation and pain
Soon after the injury that causes tetraplegia, the use of corticosteroids may be helpful in reducing swelling and inflammation at the injury site.
Other helpful medications may include pain relievers and muscle relaxants.
Physical therapy is usually recommended to help keep muscles and joints as strong and mobile as possible.
Usually, someone who experiences an injury that causes tetraplegia is put into a lengthy rehabilitation program that includes physical therapy and occupational therapy, to learn how to adjust to daily life with a dramatic change in:
In a 2015 study, people living with paralyzed arms and hands had surgery to transfer healthy nerves and tendons to their arms and hands.
The study above showed that 70 percent of the people who underwent the surgery experienced improved autonomy and mobility related to:
- other functions
Depending on how high up on your spine the injury occurred, nerve and tendon transfer may be possible for some people.
Psychotherapy is an important part of rehabilitation. People facing a future without the use of their arms and legs usually need help making that adjustment both physically and emotionally.
Stem cell therapy
Another encouraging option that is still in the experimental stages is stem cell therapy, which takes undifferentiated or “blank” cells and converts them into the types of cells needed to replace your cells affected by the injury or condition.
While the use of stem cells to treat or cure paralysis is still an idea rather than a clinical option for people, a
The researchers in the review above noted that the use of a person’s own stem cells to repair injured nerves is associated with a relatively low risk of triggering an immune system response that would reject the stem cells.
Coping with tetraplegia is a day-by-day challenge for the individual and the person’s family and friends.
Support groups for patients and their caregivers can provide much-needed emotional assistance and information about new treatments or other means of enhancing function and quality of life.
Your community may have resources available through:
- hospitals and clinics
- nonprofit agencies
- public health departments
The following list includes some resources for people to learn about everything from cutting-edge research to insurance assistance, wheelchairs and other devices, and much more:
Tetraplegia is usually the result of a spinal cord or brain injury that damages nerve fibers so severely that all four limbs are paralyzed.
The injuries are often permanent, though with advances in nerve transfer surgery and the possibility of stem cell therapy down the road, there is some room for optimism that a partial recovery may be possible.
When living with tetraplegia, it’s important to manage:
- body functions such as blood pressure
The following experiences may help manage the conditions above from tetraplegia:
- 24-hour care
- physical therapy
Psychological therapy for individuals and their caregivers is often an essential component of moving forward and finding ways to appreciate life from a new perspective.