Living with paraplegia is probably a lot different than you think. Thanks to advances in medical science, paraplegics today are living longer, healthier lives despite their disabilities. This article discusses some of the main aspects of paraplegic life.
Paraplegia is the result of spinal cord damage in which the nerves that interpret sensation and control movement are impaired, or rendered inoperable. Most paraplegia is caused by trauma, such as a fall or a traffic accident, however diseases such as cancer or nervous system disorders can also impair spinal nerve function. While the term paraplegia covers a wide range of impairments, most affected individuals lose the ability to walk and will spend the rest of their lives in a wheelchair.
There are two main types of paraplegia: complete and incomplete. In complete paraplegia, all sensory and motor nerve function below the level of injury is absent. A complete paraplegic cannot move or feel anything beyond this spot, and will require a wheelchair for mobility. A person with incomplete paraplegia may have some function below their level of injury, because only a portion of the nerves in the spinal cord are damaged.
A common misconception about paraplegics is that they can't move their legs. While this is true for some, other people with paraplegia may be able to stand or even walk depending on how severe their injury is. Paraplegia means impairment in the lower limbs, not complete loss of function. Some people with the condition have damage as high as the upper chest, and cannot move or feel anything below their nipple line. Some are impaired only from the pelvis down, and may be able to lift their legs at the hips. Others may be only partially impaired below their level of injury, and may be able to walk short distances with or without a device like a walker or a cane. Another common misconception is that paraplegics are invalids. The fact is, with proper rehabilitation and training most paraplegics can return to complete independent living, including returning to school or the work force, driving a car, and having a family.
Despite the ability to live independently with paraplegia, there are many risks associated with this condition. For some people with high levels of injury, there is an increased risk of breathing complications due to impairment in some of the breathing muscles. People with injuries in the thoracic spine may be at a higher risk for developing pneumonia than those with lower levels of injury. Also, due to impaired sensation, paraplegics have an increased risk of developing pressure sores. Without proper attention, wounds may become infected and require a hospital stay.
The author is a therapist in a spinal cord rehabilitation center, and has seen many individuals with paraplegia recover and go on to live happy, healthy lives. Many of her patients use their paraplegia as a way to start over in life, and may go back to school or change careers. Many patients return to their jobs, and return to family life to pick up where they left off. While there are certainly disadvantages to becoming paraplegic, life as a paraplegic is not as bleak as it may seem. Often, it is not that much different than the life of the average individual.