Quadriplegia (also called tetraplegia) is an affliction that affects the four limbs of the human body, plus the torso. The vast majority of people with this condition experience significant paralysis below the neck or are unable to move at all.
Tetraplegia results from trauma high in the spinal cord, most often between the C1 and C7 cervical vertebrae. Don’t confuse the spinal cord with the bones in the spine. The spinal cord is a nerve bundle shielded within the curving vertebrae that support the spinal column.
Because a spinal cord injury (SCI) damages the brain, the spine, or both, it is not unusual for the arms and legs of a person with quadriplegia to be perfectly normal. They just aren’t getting the brain signals they need to work properly.
The location of the spinal cord damage determines the severity of the paralysis. Trauma higher up on the spine usually produces more severe injury, even death. There is no known cure for SCI.
An increasing number of people are being treated for SCI. The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) reported that in 2015, “between 240,000 and 337,000 people are currently living with SCI in the United States.”
Of the total number of U.S. patients with SCI, 47 percent are considered quadriplegic. SCI is the result of:
- Vehicular accidents 37%
- Violence 28%
- Falls 21%
- Sports-related 6%
- Other 8%
Men dominate the list of people with SCI with 82% afflicted, with women making up the remaining 18% of patients.
Statistically, people with SCI are men who are single (53%), employed (58.8%), between 16 and 30 years old, and were injured by a car wreck (44%), an act of violence (24%), a fall (22%), or sports (8%).
People with quadriplegia have special needs when it comes to performing daily activities the rest of us take for granted. From opening doors to sending an email, many obstacles must be overcome.
Help from emerging technology is available for the quarter-million Americans living with quadriplegia. A wide variety of assistive technologies can help people with paralysis communicate, control their environment, and use a computer.
Communication devices include a cell phone, an intercom system to identify callers at the front door, and security web cameras. In addition, there are literally hundreds of smartphone apps to help people with quadriplegia stay fit, travel, perform medical monitoring, and increase personal and professional productivity.
Some high-tech environmental control devices appeal to everyone, not only people with paraplegia. Environmental control is any device that manages a dwelling, workplace, or the great outdoors – including transportation. These include gadgets that act as light switches, adjust the heating/cooling thermostat, control the television, or open a window or door.
When personal safety is an issue, some insurance companies will pay for door-opening switches installed throughout a house. For the same reason, automatic curtain openers/closers can be a covered expense.
People with quadriplegia use computers thanks to voice-dictation systems. A microphone that mounts to a desk may be a better alternative to speaking into the computer’s built-in microphone. There is also a system that lets eye and head movements direct a computer mouse, using the computer’s webcam.
A scientific study on the effects of moving a computer mouse up, down, left, and right discovered that a leftward movement is the most difficult of the four directions. To compensate for this purely kinetic (movement-based) disadvantage, the researchers advised, software engineers could relocate desktop icons from the left side to the right side.
It is encouraging that there are so many assistive technology products on the market to help people with quadriplegia deal with daily life. From clothing and sex toys to wheelchair accessories and ergonomic furniture, high-tech tools are restoring control to individuals who have lost some or all use of their lower body.
A company called Invotek has specialized in providing engineering services to people with severe disabilities since it was created in 1988. Their goal is “to improve independence, communication, and quality of life for people with severe disabilities.” Most of their products help people with quadriplegia use a computer or improve their natural speech ability after an injury to the spinal cord.
One self-styled “happy geeky quadriplegic engineer living life to its fullest!” shared how he knocks out his blog posts and emails so quickly and easily. Rather than use “a little plastic stick in my hand,” the unnamed techie speaks to his computer, makes “a few sporadic pecks with the pointer in my left hand,” and uses his right hand to make “smart use of the trackball.” Wow. Hats off to you, sir.