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Mayo Clinic

U.S. National Library of Medicine




When a person suffers a spinal cord injury, information traveling along the spinal cord below the level of injury will be either completely or partially isolated from the brain, resulting in tetraplegia (quadriplegia) or paraplegia.

Following a spinal cord injury the body will still be attempting to send messages from below the level of injury to the brain known as sensory messages via sensory pathways ascending the spinal cord. The brain will also still be attempting to send messages downwards to the muscles throughout the body via descending pathways, known as motor messages. These messages however will be blocked by the damage in the spinal cord at the level of injury. Peripheral nerves joining the spinal cord above the level of spinal cord injury will be unaffected and continue to work as normal sending and receiving messages via the spinal cord to and from the brain.

Quadriplegia / Tetraplegia

Tetraplegia / Quadriplegia: is the medical term used when a person has a spinal cord injury above the first thoracic vertebra. Paralysis affects the cervical spinal nerves (C1-C8) resulting in paralysis in varying degrees in all four limbs. In addition to the arms and legs being paralysed, the abdominal and chest muscles will also be affected resulting in weakened breathing and the inability to properly cough and clear the chest. The older term Quadraplegic or Quadraplegia may also sometimes be used, mainly in the UK.


Paraplegia: is a term used when the level of spinal cord injury occurs below the first thoracic spinal nerve (T1-S5). The degree at which the person is paralysed can vary from the impairment of leg movement, to complete paralysis of the legs and abdomen up to the nipple line. Paraplegics have full use of their arms and hands.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

Cauda Equina Syndrome: The cauda equina is the mass of nerves which fan out of the spinal cord at between the first and second Lumbar region of the spine, an area known as the conus medullaris. The spinal cord ends at L1 and L2 at which point a bundle of nerves travel downwards within the lumbar and sacral vertebrae. Injury to these nerves will cause partial or complete loss of movement and sensation to the legs, bladder, bowel and sexual organs. It is possible if the nerves are not too badly damaged for them to regenerate again and for the recovery of function. The resultant paralysis results in paraplegia, but this is condition is known as a cauda equina syndrome injury.

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