The central nervous system includes the brain and the spinal cord. Damage to either, such as may occur during a motor vehicle accident, can result in paralysis. Spinal cord injuries from car crashes are common. In fact, motor vehicle accidents account for nearly half of all new spinal cord injuries that occur on an annual basis.
Doctors and medical researchers divide the spinal cord and the vertebrae into three different levels: The cervical spine is the portion found in the neck, the lumbar spine is in the low back and the thoracic spine is between the two other levels in the upper torso.
The type of paralysis depends partly on the level of the spinal cord where the injury occurs.
Quadriplegia is the medical term applied to paralysis that affects all four limbs of the body, i.e., both arms and both legs. It can also affect involuntary functions of internal organs, including vital organs such as the lungs or the heart. Quadriplegia most often occurs due to damage to the cervical spine caused by a neck injury.
An injury to the lumbar or thoracic spine can affect the ability to move one’s legs. The term for this is paraplegia. Damage that occurs at a higher level of the spine may affect more of the body. For example, a thoracic spine injury may involve parts of the torso. In addition to the legs, paraplegia can also affect bowel, bladder and sexual function.
Depending on the nature of the damage, paralysis can be either partial or complete. Partial paralysis, sometimes called paresis, means that the patient still has some control over muscle function in the affected area of the body, though less so than before the injury. Complete paralysis means that the damage is so extensive that no nerve function reaches the muscle at all, and voluntary movement is no longer possible.
Damage due to an injury to the spinal cord is often irreversible. Nevertheless, it is still possible to manage the condition.