Paraplegia often affects young people

Paraplegia is usually caused by a serious accident. Which is why so many young people are affected by this stroke of fate. But thanks to intensive rehabilitation and a great many aids, people with paraplegia can live independently in society despite their disability.

What causes paraplegia?

Paraplegia is caused by damage to the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a string of nerves the thickness of your little finger in the bony vertebral canal. The damage is usually caused by an accident, or more rarely by disease, such as a tumor. Paraplegia often affects young people. The average age of those newly affected is 27. Paralysis is one of the worst things to affect your health that anyone can imagine.

Can paraplegia be cured?

As of yet, there is still no cure. The paralysis is irreversible, as damaged nerve cells do not regenerate.

What are the first signs of paraplegia?

Most people find they can no longer feel their legs immediately after the accident. The first signs of paraplegia are numbness and immobility in the legs, accompanied by extreme back pain. Once the accident victim has been rescued (which should only be done by qualified experts), they are operated on to fix the break in the dorsal vertebra. Depending on their injury, patients will have to spend several weeks in a special clinic or hospital, until the break in their back is mended. After this, patients have to be remobilized. In a rehabilitation program that usually lasts several months, patients with paraplegia gradually learn how to cope with the consequences of their disability. After rehabilitation, persons with paraplegia have a good chance of resuming their normal lives without outside help.

What parts of the body are affected be paraplegia?

Depending on where the back was injured, the paralysis can affect different parts of the body. Paraplegia is the result of an injury to the spine at the level of the thoracic or lumbar vertebra. For most people with paraplegia, the legs and usually parts of the torso are paralyzed. Paralysis means that the muscles in the legs, stomach, back, and possibly also the chest, no longer function. The person affected can no longer walk or stand. The paralysis in the legs is often spastic, which means that the muscles sometimes cramp together. Many people with paraplegia have difficulty sitting up straight.

Does paraplegia also cause loss of feeling?

The musculature is not the only thing that's lost at the point of the paralysis – the sensation of feeling goes too. People with paraplegia have no feeling of touch or position in the paralyzed parts of their body. They feel neither pain nor temperature in the affected areas. Because the skin can no longer perceive injury, those affected are at risk of burns or injuries from pressure sores (decubitus ulcer).

Are the excretory organs also affected by paraplegia?

One of the hardest things for people with paraplegia to bear are disorders of the excretory organs. Both the bladder and bowels no longer functions correctly. Fifty years ago, these disorders of the excretory organs used to cost most patients their lives after only a few years. Thanks to medical advances (such as self-catheterization), these problems are no longer life-threatening. However, most patients do find them socially limiting.

How does paraplegia affect sexuality?

Men with paraplegia have problems in achieving a full erection. Both men and women can find their capacity for orgasm is impaired. Despite this, many people describe their sex life as satisfying. Men with paraplegia can father children. Women may become pregnant spontaneously. In most cases, both pregnancy and birth proceed normally.

Author: Silvia Minder
Edited and translated: PmcC - MyH