It is possible to suffer a broken neck without becoming quadriplegic, such as when the vertebrae are fractured or dislocated but the spinal cord is not damaged. Conversely, it is possible to injure the spinal cord without breaking the spine, such as when a ruptured disc or bony spur on the vertebra protrudes into the spinal column.
Secondarily, because of their depressed functioning and immobility, quadriplegics are often more vulnerable to pressure sores, osteoporosis and fractures, frozen joints, spasticity, respiratory complications and infections, autonomic dysreflexia, deep vein thrombosis, and cardiovascular disease.
Severity depends on both the level at which the spinal cord is injured and the extent of the injury.
An individual with an injury at C1 (the highest cervical vertebra, at the base of the skull) will likely lose function from the neck down and be ventilator-dependent. An individual with a C7 injury may lose function from the chest down but still retain use of the arms and much of the hands.
The extent of the injury is also important. A complete severing of the spinal cord will result in complete loss of function from that vertebra down. A partial severing or even bruising of the spinal cord results in varying degrees of mixed function and paralysis. For example, there are quadriplegics who have impairment in all four limbs but can still walk and use their hands due to the relatively minor extent of their injury. Others cannot walk but are able to maintain control of bladder, bowel, and sexual function.
It is common to have partial use of some limbs, such as the ability to move the arms but not the hands, or to be able to use the fingers but not have enough grip strength to lift objects. Furthermore, the deficit in the limbs may not be the same on both sides of the body; the left or right side may be more affected, depending on the location of the lesion on the spinal cord.
However, quadriplegia is still the term more commonly used by the general public in the US. Pentaplegia is a less common term referring to paralysis which also substantially affects head movement.).
Even with "complete" injuries, in some rare cases, through intensive rehabilitation, slight movement can be regained through "rewiring" neural connections, as in the case of the late actor Christopher Reeve.
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