Paraplegia is a pattern of paralysis that affects the legs due to an injury or damage to the brain and spinal cord. The level and severity of the injury can be further classified into the following types of paraplegia:
Complete paraplegia: This type of injury causes total loss of function of the legs with symptoms like loss of sensation, movement, and bladder and bowel control.
Incomplete/partial paraplegia: This type of injury causes partial loss of function, and patients may still be able to move one leg or feel sensations below the level of injury.
An injury that affects the thoracic spine may also affect the abdominal and respiratory muscles making breathing and coughing difficult. If the lumbar spine is affected, chest and abdominal muscles will be spared, but bowel and bladder control may be affected. Sacral spinal injuries are more likely to cause partial paraplegia, and the patient may be able to walk with devices or braces. Bowel or bladder control may still be affected.
Symptoms of paraplegia other than loss of movement and sensation include:
- Phantom pain or sensations
- Loss of sexual function
- Loss of bowel or bladder function
- Chronic pain
- Autonomic dysreflexia causing changes in vital signs, sweating, and temperature changes
Paraplegia is caused by injury to the spinal cord due to motor vehicle accidents, penetrating injuries, falls, and medical conditions like spinal cord tumors, cysts, infection, stroke, ischemia, and inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis.
Paraplegia is diagnosed through imaging: x-ray, CT scan, or MRI, neurological exams, and electromyography.
The management of paraplegia often focuses on preventing complications and further injuries. Immediate medical treatment can prevent partial paraplegia from becoming complete paraplegia. Physical and rehabilitation therapy is vital to strengthening muscles and alleviating pain. The nurse can support and encourage lifestyle modifications to empower patients to live actively and productively.
Nursing Care Plans Related to Paraplegia
Impaired Physical Mobility
Spinal cord injury and paraplegia result in impaired physical mobility and loss of function, which can significantly decrease quality of life.
Nursing Diagnosis: Impaired Physical Mobility
- Neuromuscular dysfunction
- Decreased muscle control
- Decreased muscle strength
- Joint stiffness
As evidenced by:
- Inability to move purposely
- Decreased gross motor skills
- Postural instability
- Decreased range of motion
- Muscle atrophy
- Muscle spasticity
- Patient will demonstrate the use of assistive devices effectively.
- Patient will participate in rehabilitation and physical therapy as prescribed.
1. Assess the patient’s degree of immobility.
Paraplegia can be complete or incomplete. Treatment and management must be tailored according to the patient’s degree of immobility.
2. Assess the underlying cause of impaired mobility.
The patient may also struggle with motivational or psychological causes that prevent movement. The nurse and healthcare team should assess for additional barriers.
3. Assess the patient’s feelings about immobility.
Depression and negative emotions can affect adherence to the treatment regimen and attempts at rehabilitation.
1. Accommodate limitations.
Home settings may require ramps or lifts installed while cars can be outfitted to support wheelchairs.
2. Encourage alternative treatment.
Acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic care can make mobility less painful.
3. Prepare for surgery.
Some physical limitations may be relieved through surgery at the site of injury, such as removing a tumor.
4. Refer the patient to a physical therapist.
Ongoing physical therapy provides appropriate rehabilitative exercises for patients with paraplegia.
5. Encourage exercise.
Swimming, yoga, and seated aerobics can help with stretching to prevent muscle atrophy and promote controlled breathing to avoid respiratory complications.
Impaired Urinary Elimination
Patients with paraplegia may not have bladder and bowel control due to disrupted transmission between the brain and nerves that control elimination, referred to as neurogenic bladder.
Nursing Diagnosis: Impaired Urinary Elimination
- Disease process
- Bladder dysfunction
- Involuntary sphincter relaxation
- Weakened bladder muscles
As evidenced by:
- Urinary hesitancy
- Urinary urgency
- Urinary retention
- Urinary incontinence
- Frequent bladder or urinary infections
- Patient will verbalize symptoms of a bladder or urinary infection.
- Patient will demonstrate how to care for a urinary catheter properly.
1. Assess the patient’s urinary elimination patterns.
Assess for incontinence episodes, frequent infections, nocturia, or difficulty emptying to determine possible causes and related interventions.
2. Assess the bladder for distention.
Bladder dysfunction can manifest with bladder distention and overflow. A distended bladder can contribute to an infection. The nurse can perform a post-void residual to assess for impairments in emptying.
3. Review urinalysis and diagnostic tests.
Urodynamic testing evaluates urinary tract dysfunction and the exact cause of the impaired urinary elimination. Urinalysis can assess the presence of bacteria.
1. Encourage adequate fluid intake.
Patients may limit fluid intake to prevent the need to urinate, but this can cause urinary stasis and dehydration. Adequate fluid intake is necessary to maintain renal function and prevent urinary tract infections.
2. Evaluate urine color, odor, and other characteristics.
Dark urine color and a strong odor can signal dehydration or an infection. The presence of blood, pus, or stones, can indicate further complications.
3. Instruct on the Credé maneuver.
Applying manual pressure on the abdomen below the umbilicus and stroking downward can stimulate the voiding reflex. The goal is to place pressure on the bladder while the urethral sphincter relaxes to drain urine in patients with neurogenic bladder.
4. Insert a urinary catheter as indicated.
An intermittent or indwelling urinary catheter may be required for some patients with neurogenic bladder. Suprapubic catheters may be easier to manage long-term.
5. Administer anticholinergics.
These medications can increase bladder capacity, reduce bladder pressure, and preserve renal function in patients with neurogenic bladder.
6. Educate on botulinum toxin.
Botox is an effective treatment that can increase bladder capacity and reduce incontinence.
Risk for Injury
Paraplegic patients have a higher risk for injuries because of the loss of function and sensation.
Nursing Diagnosis: Risk for Injury
- Altered psychomotor performance
- Neuromuscular injury
- Spinal cord injury
- Muscle weakness
- Inability to move lower extremities
- Sensory disruption
As evidenced by:
A risk diagnosis is not evidenced by signs and symptoms, as the problem has not occurred yet, and nursing interventions are directed at preventing signs and symptoms.
- Patient will be free from falls, injury, or skin breakdown.
- Patient will adhere to the use of safety equipment at all times.
1. Assess risk factors predisposing the patient to injury.
Patients with paraplegia have difficulty making purposeful movements in their lower extremities, increasing the risk of injuries and falls. Assess for a loss of sensations that also predispose the patient to injuries.
2. Assess the environment for any hazards.
Hazardous items must be removed from the environment or altered to ensure the patient’s safety.
3. Assess the availability of a support person.
A patient with paraplegia may require frequent care and assistance by a caregiver for movement, ADLs, elimination, and injury prevention.
1. Assist the patient with transferring or ambulating
The patient that can ambulate should be assisted with a gait belt, walker, braces, etc. The client with no lower leg function should be assisted to transfer and turn by a competent individual.
2. Prevent skin breakdown.
Pressure injuries are a significant complication of paraplegia. The patient may not be able to feel sharp or painful sensations. Reposition the patient frequently and keep IV lines and cords away from their body to prevent damaging tissues.
3. Encourage self-care.
Patients with paraplegia can still perform self-care activities as they have the use of their arms. The patient may be able to use a trapeze bar to reposition themselves, can likely perform some of their grooming, and feed themselves.
4. Refer the patient to rehabilitation programs.
Rehabilitation programs for paraplegic patients are available to provide support, maintain muscle strength and mass, and teach techniques to maneuver and perform tasks safely and independently.
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- Lewis’s Medical-Surgical Nursing. 11th Edition, Mariann M. Harding, RN, Ph.D., FAADN, CNE. 2020. Elsevier, Inc.
- Paraplegia. Beth Israel Lahey Health Winchester Hospital. 2023. From: https://www.winchesterhospital.org/health-library/article?id=230663
- Spinal cord injury. Mayo Clinic. Reviewed: October 02, 2021. From: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/spinal-cord-injury/symptoms-causes/syc-20377890
- What is paraplegia? The University of Alabama. 2023. From: https://www.uab.edu/medicine/sci/faqs-about-spinal-cord-injury-sci/what-is-paraplegia