Spinal cord injuries can occur in various ways, such as car accidents or sports injuries for example, and can often result in life-altering impacts. Any type of injury to the spinal cord should be taken seriously and understanding the best steps to recovery is important to manage symptoms and improve quality of life after the injury.
Types of Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injuries are categorized into two types:
- Complete Spinal Cord Injury: A complete spinal cord injury occurs when the spinal cord is permanently damaged, causing a total loss of sensation and function below the level of the injury. This type of injury results in the inability to move or feel anything below the point of injury. Paraplegia or tetraplegia are results of complete spinal cord injuries.
- Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury: An incomplete spinal cord injury occurs from partial damage to the spinal cord. This injury causes some degree of a loss of sensation and function below the level of the injury. Injury victims may experience some movement or feeling below the point of injury, but it may be limited or inconsistent.
Within the category of incomplete spinal cord injuries, there are several subtypes:
- Anterior cord syndrome: This type of injury occurs from damage to the front of the spinal cord, which affects movement and sensation in the legs more than the arms.
- Central cord syndrome: This type of injury occurs from damage to the center of the spinal cord, which affects the function of the arms more than the legs.
- Brown-Sequard syndrome: This condition is caused by damage to one side of the spinal cord, which results in difficulty or lack of movement and sensation on that side of the body.
- Cauda equina injury: This type of injury is caused by damage to the nerves at the base of the spinal cord, impacting sensation and movement in the legs, bladder, and bowel.
Common Treatments for Spinal Cord Injuries
The treatments for spinal cord injury depend on the severity and type of the injury. For more severe injuries such as complete spinal cord injuries, treatments may help alleviate symptoms, however there are currently no cures for spinal cord injuries.
When treating spinal cord injuries, typically the first step is immobilization of the spine to prevent further damage. This can be done with a brace or neck collar to support the spine and prevent movement. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove any fragments of bone that are compressing the spinal cord. In more severe cases, surgery to stabilize the spine with metal rods or screws is also a treatment option. Assistive devices such as braces, crutches, or wheelchairs, can help improve mobility and independence for those recovering from a spinal cord injury.
Physical therapy and rehabilitation are two of the most common treatments for recovery after suffering from a spinal cord injury. Physical therapy is extremely important for increasing mobility by helping improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion. Doctors can also recommend rehabilitation programs as a necessary step to recovery for patients with spinal cord injuries to regain functional independence and improve their quality of life. These programs may include occupational therapy, speech therapy, and vocational counseling.
Medications are also a common treatment after a spinal cord injury to help manage pain, muscle spasticity, or bladder/bowel dysfunction. Since there is currently no treatment to entirely cure a spinal cord injury, most doctors focus on treatments for managing the symptoms and helping improve quality of life.
Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation
Physical therapy is a crucial component of the recovery process after a spinal cord injury. Getting treatment from a physical therapist can help with a spinal cord injury in many ways including:
- Improving strength and range of motion: Physical therapy can help improve muscle strength, flexibility, and range of motion in parts of the body that have been weakened or affected by the injury. This can help those with spinal cord injuries regain some functional abilities that may have been lost and prevent further injuries later on.
- Enhancing motor control: Physical therapy can help those who have difficulty with motor control from a spinal cord injury improve their motor functions and help develop new strategies for performing everyday tasks.
- Managing spasticity: Muscle spasticity is a common complication of spinal cord injuries which can lead to muscle stiffness and involuntary movements. Stretching, massage therapy, and other physical therapy techniques can help manage spasticity and related symptoms.
- Improving cardiovascular health: Individuals who have experienced a spinal cord injury have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease due to a lack of physical activity. Physical therapy can help improve cardiovascular health by incorporating exercises that increase heart rate and improve blood circulation.
While the costs of physical therapy may be a burden, it is important to understand the long term health benefits. Speaking with your insurance provider or getting in contact with an attorney if a third party is liable for your injury, such as in a car accident, can help you recover financial compensation for these medical expenses. Working with a physical therapist during recovery from a spinal cord injury can be extremely helpful for developing independence and learning techniques to perform daily activities.
Emotional and Mental Health Support
Experiencing a spinal cord injury from an accident can be traumatic and scarring. At the same time, the road to recovery can be a long and challenging process emotionally. Because of this, it is important to surround yourself with a support system of family, friends, and healthcare professionals who can offer emotional support and practical help. Working with a physical therapist you trust can also be helpful for support and guidance to cope with the psychological challenges of a spinal cord injury.
Practicing self-care both physically and emotionally is crucial throughout the process of recovery from a spinal cord injury. Taking time to prioritize your mental health and recover from a traumatic injury is just as important as physical recovery. This includes getting plenty of rest, eating a healthy diet, and engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation.
After suffering from a spinal cord injury, an important tip to remember is to focus on what you can do. It’s natural to feel frustrated and discouraged when faced with physical limitations because of an injury. However, focusing on what you can do, rather than what you can’t, can help promote a positive mindset.
It’s important to seek professional help if feelings of depression, anxiety, or other emotional challenges become overwhelming. Mental health professionals can provide counseling and other forms of support for individuals who experience struggles coping with the emotional aspects of spinal cord injury recovery.