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What Happens After C5 Spinal Cord Injury?

life after c5 spinal cord injury

Did you know that a C5 spinal cord injury is one of the most common levels of injury?

It will result in quadriplegia (aka tetraplegia), which is paralysis in the arms, trunk, and legs.

C5 spinal cord injury patients should be able to move their heads, necks, and most of their shoulders with no problem.

This article will go over what major changes to expect after a C5 spinal cord injury.

What to Expect After C5 Spinal Cord Injury

First things first, we wanted to clarify that every spinal cord injury is different.

Even amongst C5 spinal cord injuries, outcomes will vary.

The C5 nerve generally affects muscles in the upper arm like the biceps, deltoids, and supraspinatus.

However, depending on the severity of your C5 spinal cord injury, you may be able to move some areas below your level of injury.

Let’s go over 7 common outcomes of C5 spinal cord injury.

1. Caregiving

c5 spinal cord injury patient and caregiver

When so much of your body is paralyzed, you’re going to be very dependent on a caregiver to help you carry out everyday tasks.

Having limited or no arm and hand function makes it really difficult to move around and accomplish what needs to be done.

Caregivers will help you with activities of daily living like transferring, grooming, and toileting.

2. Spasticity

When your spinal cord is damaged, communication between your brain and body gets interrupted.

Spasticity is when your muscles continuously stay contracted because they’re not receiving the signal from the brain to relax.

Spasticity can cause uncontrollable, random spasms, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that spasticity is a good sign of recovery.

Being able to feel or move anything means that some neural connections still exist.

Spasticity management typically consists of physical therapy, muscle relaxants, or surgery.

3. Spinal Shock

why your c5 spinal cord injury may not be as extreme as you think

What if we told you that spinal cord injuries are usually never as bad as they initially appear?

It’s true! After a spinal cord injury, your spinal cord goes into defense mode (spinal shock). All these inflammatory responses and biochemical reactions are occurring in an attempt to protect and stabilize the spinal cord.

However, these processes are harsh and result in a lot of inflammation, cell deaths, and reduced blood flow.

Our bodies need blood because it is rich in oxygen, which is what fuels cell activity. Without it, our organ systems will start to shut down.

During spinal shock, inflammatory processes cause swelling, which further reduces blood flow.

When blood flow is cut off, your reflexes and functions below your level of injury won’t work.

However, spinal shock is a temporary condition and once the swelling starts to die down, functions may gradually return.

It’s only after spinal shock that you’ll have a better understanding of the severity of your spinal cord injury.

Spinal shock can last anywhere from a few days to 3 months, so you might be pleasantly surprised to find that your spinal cord injury isn’t as bad as you thought.

4. Bladder and Bowel Dysfunction

Bladder and bowel dysfunction are extremely common in spinal cord injury patients.

This is because you lose the ability to voluntarily contract and relax your urethral and anal sphincters.

Bladder and bowel problems in spinal cord injury patients can be managed through catheterization, bowel management programs, bladder augmentation, and medications.

5. Respiratory Complications

breathing weakness after c5 sci

Did you know what respiratory complications are the #1 cause of death in spinal cord injury patients?

The C3-C5 peripheral nerves innervate the diaphragm.

Generally, C5 patients don’t need the assistance of a ventilator to breathe but may still experience weakness.

Practicing breathing exercises can help expand lung volume while practicing coughing exercises will help make it easier to clear secretions.

6. Autonomic Dysreflexia

With C5 spinal cord injury, a lot of your body is not going to be in perfect sync with your brain.

Your autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating involuntary processes in your body like blood pressure, temperature, and digestion.

Autonomic dysreflexia is when you experience a sudden spike in blood pressure due to your autonomic nervous system overreacting and tightening blood vessels.

Normally, your brain will signal the blood vessels to relax, but due to the spinal cord injury, this increase in blood pressure can be life-threatening.

Anything that stimulates the body like a full bladder, tight clothing, and extreme temperatures can cause autonomic dysreflexia.

Try to wear looser clothing, be mindful of your toileting patterns, and avoid extreme heat or cold. Also, check for signs of skin irritation like bruises and pressure sores daily.

7. Changes in Weight

weight management after spinal cord injury

When so much of your body is paralyzed, it’s very difficult to control how much or how often you move.

When you don’t use your muscles and bones, they weaken and shrink.

Many spinal cord injury patients will lose a substantial amount of weight from losing bone and muscle mass.

However, many will also gain a lot of weight because they are eating too much for how little they move.

Diet and exercise go hand in hand. Especially with a high-level SCI, major adjustments must be made to balance energy expenditure and food intake.

This does not mean that you should barely eat; rather, it means that you should be making an effort to move as much as possible.

Even if you can’t move, having your caregiver perform passive range of motion exercises can help stimulate the muscles and improve circulation.

Recovery After C5 Spinal Cord Injury

life after c5 spinal cord injury

Rehabilitation after C5 spinal cord injury is going to be different for everyone, but we believe that as long as you’re willing to put in the effort, there’s always hope for recovery.

There’s a misconception that you have up to a year after your spinal cord injury to recover and after that, you’re as good as you’re ever going to get. This is not true.

Many people that continue to stay positive and work hard towards their recovery continue to see results years after their spinal cord injury. Recovery is not linear.

C5 spinal cord injury rehabilitation generally consists of physical therapy and occupational therapy.

In physical therapy, you’ll focus more on improving your gross motor skills with exercise. Through massed practice, you can work on strengthening neural connections and promoting neuroplasticity in the spinal cord.

In occupational therapy, you and your caregiver will work on developing your fine motor skills by focusing on activities of daily living.

Your mental health is also extremely important, so be sure to see a counselor, surround yourself with loved ones, and join a spinal cord injury support group.

Not every day will be easy, but every day will add up and be worth it.

Good luck!

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