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Quadriplegia and Paraplegia

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Quadriplegia and Paraplegia


Paralysis is a problem moving the body due to disease or injury to the nervous system. There are two types:

  • Paraplegia—the lower half of the body is fully or partly paralyzed
  • Quadriplegia, sometimes called tetraplegia—a person cannot move both arms and both legs

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Paraplegia happens when there is damage below the neck. Quadriplegia happens when the damage is at the base of the neck or skull.

The most common cause is trauma, such as from a sports injury, car accident, or fall. Other causes are:


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Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of these problems are:

  • Playing certain sports, such as football, rugby, wrestling, gymnastics, diving, surfing, ice hockey, and downhill skiing
  • A family history of certain inherited nerve diseases
  • History of cancer—can cause pressure on the spinal cord


Paralysis may be total or partial. It depends on how much of the spinal cord is damaged. Other problems may be:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control—incontinence
  • Loss of sexual function
  • Trouble breathing
  • Problems sitting upright

Inactivity can lead to other problems, such as:

People may also become depressed because of:

  • Lack of social and emotional support
  • Being more dependent on others


The doctor will ask about symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. Many health specialists will be involved in the diagnosis.

Blood tests will be done. The fluid around the brain and spine may also be tested. This can be done with a lumbar puncture.

Images may need to be taken of the spine. This can be done with:

Nerve function may be tested. This can be done with:


Emergency care will be needed. It can prevent further damage. Choices are:

  • Steroids and other medicines to lessen damage to nerves and nearby tissue
  • Surgery to stabilize the spine or ease pressure on it


Paraplegia is often due to accidents that cannot be prevented.


Therapy will be needed to improve function and quality of life. Choices are:

  • Physical therapy—to improve strength and learn how to use assistive devices
  • Occupational therapy—to help with daily tasks and self care
  • Speech therapy—to help with swallowing and speech
  • Psychological therapy—to provide support




  • Eckert, M.J. and Martin, M.J. Trauma: spinal cord injury. Surgical Clinics of North America, 2017; 97 (5): 1031-1045.
  • Management of chronic spinal cord injury. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/management-of-chronic-spinal-cord-injury.
  • Spinal cord injury information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Spinal-Cord-Injury-Information-Page.


  • James Cornell, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.