I’ve often been asked what does paralysis feel like and despite being paralyzed for almost four years now, I can’t fully explain it. The moment the impact occurred it was as if an electrical short-circuit occurred in my body; as if a trip-switch had been hit and everything went instantly numb despite being fully conscious. No pain, no feeling anywhere, just a still, surreal calmness and a floating body experience.
A common misconception of paralysis is that it occurs from either the neck down or the waist down but this is incorrect. The body is so much more complex than that and paralysis doesn’t always occur in one straight line across the body. A quadriplegic, like me, is someone with impairment in all four limbs, trunk muscles and organs; they may be able to move their arms but triceps and finger dexterity is impaired. In paraplegia normal hand function remains whilst trunk muscles and the lower body is affected.
Spinal cord injuries can result from damage not only to the spinal cord itself but to the vertebrae, ligaments or disks of the spinal column. Ultimately, the spinal cord (the nerve fibers relaying electrical signals to and from the brain to every part of the body) is damaged. This may lead to impairment in part or all of the corresponding muscles and nerves below the injury site.
Leading to my next point; Spinal cord injuries can be divided into two types of injury – complete and incomplete depending on the severity of the injury. A complete injury does not necessarily mean that the spinal cord is completely severed. It means that there is no function below the level of the injury; e.g. no sensation including hot or cold and no voluntary movement. Both sides of the body are equally affected. This is my case with burns from hot items including hot water bottles, cups of coffee etc being a permanent hazard.
An incomplete injury means that there is some functioning below the primary level of the injury. A person with an incomplete injury may be able to move one limb more than another, may be able to feel parts of the body that cannot be moved, or may have more functioning on one side of the body than the other.
So if you can’t feel anything how do you know you are hot/cold or if something’s uncomfortable? Essentially, any painful, irritating, or even strong stimulus below the level of the injury for example too tight clothing can cause an episode of autonomic dysreflexia. The symptoms include flushing and sweating only above the level of injury, bradycardia, pupillary constriction, anxiety and nasal congestion and below the level of injury, there is pale, cool skin and piloerection. So despite a broken communication network between the body and brain, the body still manages to notify the brain that something is wrong just in a different way than before.