Tetraplegia/Cervical Spinal Cord Injury
What is tetraplegia?
Neck (cervical spine) injuries can result in damage to the spinal cord resulting in weakness and loss of sensation in the extremities. Alterations in function of both the upper and lower extremities is called tetraplegia. While the lower extremities are often paralyzed in these injuries, loss of function in the upper extremities varies. Some severe cases result in complete loss of movement and sensation in the arms and hands. More mild cases may only produce mild hand weakness.
What causes tetraplegia?
Tetraplegia occurs after an injury to the cervical spinal cord. These injuries most often occur after a broken neck (also called cervical spine fracture). The injury to the spinal cord interrupts the normal communication from the brain to the arms and legs. This typically results in complete loss of function in the legs. Function of the arms varies from complete loss of sensation and movement in severe injuries to mild hand weakness in more mild injuries.
What are the risk factors for tetraplegia?
Weakness and loss of sensation in the arms and hands related to tetraplegia occurs after a significant neck injury. These neck injuries often result in fractures or dislocations of the cervical spine which damages the spinal cord. Injuries are often secondary to motor vehicle accidents, falls, contact sporting injuries, and gunshot wounds.
What are the symptoms of tetraplegia?
Symptoms can include decreased feeling in the hands or arms as well as significant weakness affecting the hands, elbows, and shoulders. Lack of sensation and strength can significantly impact the ability to perform daily tasks such as eating, hygiene, and getting dressed.
How is tetraplegia diagnosed?
Patients with weakness of the hands and arms secondary to tetraplegia have often been diagnosed and treated for an injury to the cervical spinal cord. The upper extremity specialist will examine the arms and hands to test for sensation and strength. This will identify potential areas for improvement. Other tests such as X-rays, CT or MRI scans, or nerve studies may be ordered to further evaluate the injury.
What are the treatment options for tetraplegia?
Treatment options vary based on the severity of dysfunction in the arms and hands. In mild cases, physical and occupational therapy can be helpful in maximizing upper extremity function and improving range of motion of the shoulders, elbow, and hands. In more severe cases, surgical treatment may be recommended to increase function of the arms and hands. Surgical treatment options may include nerve transfers, tendon or muscle transfers, osteotomies, and fusion procedures.
What are the complications of tetraplegia?
In severe injuries, loss of feeling and significant weakness of the hands and arms may persist despite therapy or surgical treatment. These patients often require a significant amount of care due to difficulty performing daily tasks like eating, bathing, and getting dressed.
When should I call the healthcare provider?
If you have had an injury to your neck resulting in spinal cord damage and are having difficulty with movement in the arms or hands, you should contact your healthcare provider to evaluate for tetraplegia.
Key points about tetraplegia
Tetraplegia is weakness and loss of function in the hands and arms after a cervical spinal cord injury. Patients with tetraplegia may be candidates for treatment to improve their overall function.