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What’s the Difference Between Tetraplegia and Quadriplegia?

By Matt Lalande in Spinal Cord Injuries on August 20, 2020

What’s the Difference Between Tetraplegia and Quadriplegia?

A spinal cord injury can often present itself in a variety of forms, depending on the location of the lesion or which area of the spinal cord has suffered damage. Individuals who experience mobility loss after a traumatic accident may suffer from paraplegia, tetraplegia, or quadriplegia, depending on the circumstances of the incident.   Paraplegia is a condition in which the lower part of a person’s body is paralyzed and cannot willfully function. It is usually the result of a spinal cord injury.  While paraplegia is fairly well understood as loss of mobility from the waist down, tetraplegia and quadriplegia are often difficult to differentiate because they are commonly grouped together and used interchangeably.  In fact, tetraplegia, to most in the medical community, is formerly known as quadriplegia, it’s mainly just their derivation that is different – and not much else. Both terms mean “paralysis of four limbs.”   The term ‘quadri’ means ‘4’ in latin, whereas ‘tetra’ means ‘4’ in Greek.

What is Tetraplegia/Quadriplegia?

To explain tetraplegia or quadriplegia, it’s important to have an idea of basic spinal cord anatomy.  Your spinal cord is soft and cable like substance. It is protected by your vetebral spinal column that is made up of 33 stacked bones. Within each vertebral bone is a circular opening like a donut.  The bones are stacked one on top of each other and your spinal cord runs through the circular openings. Between your vertebrae are cartiligenous discs that cushion your vertebrae. In the spaces between the discs are passages where spinal nerves exit throughout the rest of your body. These are places where the spinal cord is vulnerable to damage.

Your vertebrae is grouped into sections that are named and numbered from the top down:

  • Your cervical vertebrae are in your neck area starting at the base of your skull to the bottom of your neck and numbered numbered 1–7;
  • Your thoracic vertebrae are located in your upper back and attached to your ribcage, numbered from 1–12;
  • Your lumbar vertebrae are located in your lower back, and numbered from 1–5;
  • Your sacral vertebrae are located in your hip area and numbered 1–5, and;
  • Your coccygeal vertebrae are located in the tailbone area, fused, and numbered 1–4 fused.

The severity of a spinal cord injury is location dependant – meaning that the body’s movement and sensation may be lost in both the arms and the legs or just in the legs (paraplegia) depending on where or at what level the lesion is located.  Quadriplegia, or tetraplegia, is caused by damage to the spinal cord at a high level (cervical vertebrae) or the brain. The higher on the spinal cord your injury occurs, the greater the effect on movement, sensation, and other body functions.  It can involve either partial or complete loss of movement and/or feeling in the head, neck, shoulders, upper chest, arms, and legs. 

Complete vs Incomplete Quadriplegia / Tetraplegia

Although most people assume that no one with tetraplegia can move or feel any part of their upper extremities, that’s not the case: many people with incomplete quadriplegia can actually still move some muscles of their arms, like their elbows, wrists, or a few fingers. Similarly, some individuals with paraplegia have enough remaining ing leg strength that they can walk with braces and crutches. Yet with the most extreme injuries, there is no movement of any extremity, and the person may even need a respirator to breathe.  Complete vs. Incomplete quadriplegic / tetraplegic spinal cord injuries are left for another article, however. 


Causes of Tetraplegia

Spinal cord injuries can happen to anyone-young or old, male or female, of any race, religion, or socioeconomic status.  Quadriplegia normally occurs by a traumatic blow to the spine that fractures or dislocates vertebrae at a high level (cervical spine).The most common causes of a quadriplegic spinal cord injury are car crashes, mortorcycle accidents, falls, diving accidents, sports injuries and assaults. In the case of trauma, there is shifting of the vertabrae, damage is instant when displaced bone fragments, disc material, or ligaments bruise, pinch or tear into spinal cord tissue.  The torn fragments of bone or disc may then enter the bony canal where the spinal cord sits and also directly injure-by bruising, tearing, or cutting its nervous tissue. In other cases, such as falls, the spinal cord may only be bruised and no bones broken, yet the resultant swelling and bleeding is enough to seriously damage the tissue. Trauma-induced induced bleeding into the spinal cord, such as may occur with stab wounds, is yet another way that the cord’s message-carrying ability from the brain can be disrupted.

Symptoms of Tetraplegia

The principal symptoms of tetraplegia are loss of function and sensation in all four limbs of the body. Victims will generally lose sensation below the level where the injury occurs, and in the case of tetraplegics, this is neck region.  Individuals with tetraplegia may experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, loss of sensation in all limbs and the torso, inability to communicate, lack of bladder or bowel control, pain or stiffness in the neck, and/or loss of fine motor skills such as holding items or writing. 

Coping With Tetraplegic and Quadriplegic Injuries

Individuals with paraplegia are often able to retain their upper body movement, which can result in a higher sense of independence. Meanwhile, individuals who suffer from tetraplegia or quadriplegia often require additional assistance and care in order to perform daily activities. Approximately half of the individuals living with complete spinal cord injury in Canada suffer from tetraplegia or quadriplegia, while the other half lives with paraplegia. 

In all cases, individuals with tetraplegia, or quadriplegia undergo specific steps in the rehabilitation process. Initial treatment includes medical solutions such as surgery to repair the spine if possible, stabilization of the injury, and/or pain reduction. Once the initial treatments of the direct injury are complete, the victim’s ongoing care will eventually shift to focus on recovering any muscle strength (if possible) and preventing ongoing health issues or conditions such as:

  • blood clots;
  • pressure ulcers;
  • syringomyelia;
  • neuropathic joint arthropathy;
  • cardiovascular issues;
  • respiratory issues;
  • urinary complications;
  • bowel complications;
  • osteoporosis;
  • pain syndromes;
  • bone fractures and
  • spasticity issues.

Tetraplegic and Quadriplegic Victims may Require Millions in Rehabilitation Funding over the Course of their Life

If you or a loved one has suffered a tetraplegic or quadriplegic spinal cord injury it’s extremely important to plan for current and future needs along with a clear picture of all associated costs.  There’s no doubt that caring for someone with a spinal cord injury can costs millions of dollars over the person’s life.  There will be lifelong costs for items required such as:

  • physical therapy;
  • occupational therapy;
  • recreational therapy;
  • vocational assistance and career guidance;
  • nutritional assistance;
  • adapted vehicles;
  • counselling or psychological assistance;
  • manual or power wheelchairs;
  • batteries, chargers, cushions and overall maintenance;
  • shower devices;
  • transfer board or transfer devices;
  • power bed and maintenance;
  • no-turn air mattresses;
  • hoyer lift and slings;
  • portable ramps;
  • standers;
  • skin supplies and inspection mirrors;
  • supplies for ADL’s and bowel and bladder;
  • psw and rehab therapists;
  • medication; and
  • adaptable home renovations

Our Hamilton spinal cord injury lawyers often assist individuals with catastrophic injuries – along with specialized experts in the field – with identifying all associated costs required over the course of their lives.  We, along with specialized occupational therapists, will communicate with clients, families, rehabilitation professionals, disability case managers, and others  who may be involved in providing long-term support in order to determine exactly what you need and ensure that we recover the economic damages you require from the person’s insurance company that caused your injuries.

If You or a Loved One Have Suffered From Tetraplegia or Quadriplegia After a Serious Accident, We Are Here to Help 

Remember, people with spinal cord injuries continue to demonstrate, time and again, that the extent of their paralysis is not a major determinant of how well they will be able to adjust to life with disability. For example, many people with tetraplegia, some of whom have no movement at all in their arms or legs, have been able to resume work or school (with the appropriate assistance), continue meaningful relationships while developing new ones, and maintain a high quality of life, just like people with paraplegia who have full use of their arms.

Many people have shown that what matters most for a successful adjustment to spinal cord injury is what they bring to their injury more than the paralysis itself. In other words, a person’s character, life history, intellectual and emotional resources, sources, and degree of family and social support make the biggest gest impact on his or her ability to live a meaningful and happy life with paralysis.  In order to do this, however, you will require appropriate monetary support and funding that will be payable from both your own insurance company (if you are insured) and the insurance company for the person that hurt you. 

It’s important that you speak to a spinal cord profesional sooner rather than later. We are spinal cord injury lawyers  in Hamilton, and serve victims all over Ontario.  We understand the specific needs and struggles you are facing, and are able to extend our knowledge with you to support you during this time. Finding the right advice and resources is a helpful step in recovering and regaining your independence or quality of life. Fill our a contact form and share your experience, or call us toll free at 1-844-LALANDE, or local in the Hamilton are at 905-333-8888 and we would be happy to speak to you at your convenience, at absolutely not cost. We never charge people to speak to us. 



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