I get asked quite often, "What does it feel like to be paralyzed?" That is a hard question to answer. It is hard because it is difficult to describe the feeling of not being able to feel something physically. It is also different for every single person who is paralyzed in one form or another.
A lot of people do not know that there are different levels of paralysis. The lower or higher the injury to the spinal column determines the amount of feeling and function your body can produce. There are differing classifications depending on those levels. I myself am a C4-5. That means I have the ability to feel everything above mid chest. Along with that I have use my biceps, some triceps movement, limited wrist movement and no finger movement. These classifications are not set in stone. They are different for every spinal cord injury.
Along with these different levels there are also complete and incomplete spinal cord injuries. Complete means there is absolutely no feeling below the level of injury. Incomplete means there is some type of sensation below the level of injury. I myself am incomplete. It doesn't mean you can feel like normal, it just means there is a sensation. The sensation is limited to a small area or areas.
There are differences between quadriplegic and paraplegic. Quadriplegia is a type of paralysis when a person's arms and legs are affected. There is either no or limited movement in the limbs. Paraplegia is when a person's lower extremities are affected. Thoracic level or below.
So with all that information I still really haven't answered the question, "What does it feel like to be paralyzed?" I will try to answer that the best I can. It is very hard to describe.
Where I cannot feel, I can feel the inside of my skin but not the outside of my skin. That may sound weird but that is how it feels. Also, where I cannot feel, it feels like a numb tingly feeling. The same way it feels when you hit your funny bone. It is a constant feeling though unlike hitting your funny bone. This feeling never leaves. Here is another way I could describe it. Have you ever been buried in wet sand or compacted hard wet snow so that you cannot move your limbs? If you have, that is about as close as you can get. The wet sand is a better comparison.
Even though it feels like I can feel the inside of my skin, there really is no feeling. It is just a sensation that happens because the brain is trying to send a signal to the body and there is no response. Also the body is trying to send a signal to the brain and again there is no response. The wires are cut.
People who are paralyzed can get into trouble because they have no feeling. I myself have run into things with my shins without realizing it and given myself quite a few bruises. One time I was probably a little too not sober and ran in to something and woke up the next morning with my two big toes black and blue. There are a lot of other stories but those are for another time…
There are also a lot of different sensations from being paralyzed. If I close my eyes and you were to put my legs in a different position, I would have no clue which way they are positioned until I open my eyes. It is a weird feeling. You could really mess with a person if you wanted to.
Another weird sensation is that I can move my limbs a little bit in my brain but they do not move in real life. The movement in my brain is slow and I really have to think about it but when I look at my fingers they are not moving. In my brain they are tapping to the beat but in reality they are doing nothing.
Cold and hot temperatures are a big nemesis for people who are paralyzed. It is also different for everyone it seems. I myself cannot sweat because of my level of injury. This means I am very susceptible to overheating, heatstroke and all that good stuff. I have overheated one too many times. You'd think I would learn. But evidently I am a slow learner. If the temperature is above 80°F and the dew point is getting close to 60°, I better be in the shade or in the air-conditioning because I will overheat within a couple hours. I have no way of cooling off internally. It has to be done externally with cold presses and cold drinks. Alcohol does not count evidently…
Some people are affected by cold weather and thankfully I am not one of those. I would much rather be cold than hot any day. I can sit motionless in the shelter belt for three hours waiting for deer when it is 20° and it does not bother me at all. It might take me a while to warm up once I get inside but that is a lot easier than trying to cool down.
I wouldn't mind finding a place to live in the mountains where the high temperature throughout the year is 80° and there is no humidity. It can get as cold as it wants, the fire would always be warm inside.
I have kind of answered this question above but another thing I get asked is, "Can I feel pain?" I guess that is one good thing, I cannot feel pain where I do not have feeling. But there is a sensation when something is wrong. Like when I smashed my two big toes, I couldn't feel the pain but my body knew there was something wrong. My doctor asked how I managed to do that as she rolled her eyes and laughed at me. If she only knew the whole story…
There is another byproduct of being paralyzed and that is what is called phantom pain. Phantom pain means that you can feel pain where you should not be able to feel anything. This is not a pleasant feeling for some people. It affects quite a few people that have an amputation. I myself get this every couple of days. It is different for everyone. I myself get a feeling in my right thigh that someone is stabbing me with a pencil. It doesn't last very long but it is quite a shock to the system every time it happens. So if you see me sitting there all normal like and all of a sudden I get a pained look on my face, don't worry, I just got stabbed with a pencil.
There is also a lot of other stuff that affects my everyday life because of the level of injury. I like to call that stuff collateral damage. That is for another time and place.
So I hope that answers some questions.
Thanks for reading, Clint