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What is the difference between paraplegia and quadriplegia?


A spinal cord injury occurs when the bones surrounding the spinal cord are damaged. Paralysis is the best known result of spinal cord injuries, but these injuries can have other effects as well. Many people think of spinal cord injuries as being in two types: paraplegia, affecting the legs and lower extremities, and quadriplegia, affecting the upper and lower extremities.

However, spinal cord injuries and their effects are more complex than a division into upper and lower injuries. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation provides more in depth guidelines about the types of spinal cord injuries and the effects that they may have, including:

  • Cervical spinal cord injuries, also known as quadriplegia or tetraplegia. These injuries occur from C1-C8 in the spinal cord and can affect all regions below the level of the injury, including paralysis or weakness in the arms and legs. Loss of physical sensation, breathing problems, bowel and bladder problems may all occur.
  • Thoracic spinal cord injuries. These injuries are less common because they occur from T1-T12, an area that’s protected by the rib cage. Paraplegia, or weakness and paralysis of the legs can result, along with bowel and bladder problems and loss of physical sensation. Muscles in the back and part of the abdomen may also be affected.
  • Lumbar spinal cord injuries. These injuries occur in the low back, from L1-L5, and can cause paraplegia. They can also cause loss of physical sensation, sexual dysfunction and bowel and bladder problems. Typically the shoulders, arms and hands are not affected.
  • Sacral spinal cord injuries, in which the spine is injured from S1-S5. These injuries can cause weakness or paralysis of the hips and legs and can also cause bowel, bladder and sexual problems.

In addition to the location of the injury, a spinal cord injury may be affected by whether it is complete or incomplete. A complete injury means there is no motor function below the injury. An incomplete injury means that some sensation or movement is possible below the injury.

Source: Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, “What is my injury all about, and what is meant by complete vs. incomplete?