Is a full recovery after spinal cord injury possible?
Damage to the spinal cord can’t repair itself the same way as the rest of the body; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the effects of SCI are permanent.
This article will explain why functional recovery is possible after spinal cord injury and how to maximize it.
What Happens After Spinal Cord Injury?
The spinal cord is responsible for relaying messages between the brain and body.
Sensory information travels from the body, up the spinal cord, to the brain.
Then, the brain interprets those stimuli and then sends motor signals back down the spinal cord to the body.
When you have a spinal cord injury, the transmission of these messages gets blocked or disrupted, resulting in weak movements or paralysis below your level of injury. Level of injury refers to the lowest segment of the spinal cord where movement and sensation are not affected.
Generally, the higher your level of injury, the more areas of your body will be affected. However, this will also depend on the severity of your injury.
Those with milder spinal cord lesions will have more spared neural pathways, which have the potential to adapt and recover damaged functions. In contrast, complete spinal cord injuries will result in no spared neural pathways, which generally results in a more limited recovery outlook.
Now that you understand how spinal cord injury affects the body, let’s talk about recovery.
Is a Full Recovery After Spinal Cord Injury Realistic?
The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) is unable to heal like other areas of the body.
Typically when you get injured, the body will heal itself within a few days. This is because most cells in the body are constantly regenerating.
Nerve cells (neurons) in the central nervous system are unable to regenerate. Therefore, damage to the spinal cord is permanent.
While the central nervous system may not be able to recover itself like other parts of the body, it has its special healing mechanism.
While damage to the spinal cord cannot reverse itself, the spinal cord has neuroplasticity (its ability to rewire itself and recover damaged functions).
Spinal cord injury recovery relies heavily on spared neurons and their ability to adapt. The less severe your spinal cord injury is, the more spared neurons you’ll have, and the better your recovery potential.
Recovery after spinal cord injury is not based on the growth of new neurons, but rather by optimizing neuroplasticity and building new connections between spared neurons in the spinal cord.
The main function of neurons is to process and transmit information to one another.
Connections between neurons can be strengthened or weakened depending on how often they’re stimulated.
Neuroplasticity is all about getting those repetitions in. The more repetitions you perform, the stronger connections between neurons become, and the more natural movements will feel.
Recovering from Spinal Cord Injury
Thousands of repetitions are required to influence neurological change, so make sure that you’re putting in the effort both at home and at rehab.
The best ways to promote recovery after spinal cord injury include:
- Physical therapy (At PT, you’ll learn exercises you can practice to stimulate spared neural pathways. A physical therapist will know exactly what muscles you’ll need to target and guide you through exercises to stretch and strengthen those muscles.)
- Occupational therapy (OT will teach you how to perform activities of daily living like brushing your teeth, feeding, and getting out of bed after spinal cord injury. Activities of daily living are typically performed multiple times a day, making them an ideal, practical way to get your repetitions in.)
- Home exercises (While physical therapy can be extremely helpful, the exercises performed in your physical therapy session are not enough. You need to also practice those exercises at home to optimize the effects of neuroplasticity.)
Maximizing Neuroplasticity After Spinal Cord Injury
Two factors that significantly affect how quickly you’ll recover after spinal cord injury are timing and intensity of rehabilitation.
The first 6 months following your SCI, your spinal cord has heightened levels of plasticity because it’s trying to stabilize and heal itself to whatever extent it can as quickly as possible.
Therefore, most patients see the greatest recovery within the first year following their spinal cord injuries.
However, neuroplasticity never goes away, and the spinal cord is always capable of adapting. Recovery isn’t linear and some individuals experience improvements years after their injuries.
The intensity that you approach your rehabilitation with also play a crucial role in your recovery.
The harder, longer, and more frequently you perform those repetitions, the quicker results will come.
The Future for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery
Unfortunately, neuroplasticity is limited by how many spared neurons you have at your injury site.
However, there is promising research that suggests a very hopeful future for those with more severe or complete spinal cord injuries.
Stem Cell Therapy
There are 2 properties of stem cells that make them a very promising treatment for spinal cord injury recovery:
1) they can differentiate into a wide variety of cells depending on their environment
2) they can divide infinitely
The idea is to inject them into the spinal cord so that they can replace damaged neurons and restore neural circuitries.
However, stem cell therapy for spinal cord injuries is still a work in progress. Researchers are working to understand what the best type of stem cell to use is, a safe dosage, timing, and the long-term effects of the therapy.
Another promising treatment is electrical stimulation.
Electric currents mimic brain signals and work around the spinal cord lesion to stimulate areas below the level of injury.
This study shows that a combination of intensive physical training and epidural electrical stimulation can improve motor functions in individuals with motor complete injuries.
Additionally, all 4 participants started the study at least 2.5 years after their spinal cord injuries (proving that recovery is not limited to a certain amount of time).
Full Recovery After Spinal Cord Injury: Key Points
It’s important to understand that both stem cell therapy and electrical stimulation will not suddenly result in recovered movement.
You still have to reteach your brain, spinal cord, and body to work in sync again through repetitive training that promotes neuroplasticity.
This means no shortcuts! Once the neuron is damaged, the pathway for that action is compromised and you need to retrain the body by strengthening a different neural pathway.
So, is a full recovery after spinal cord injury possible?
Your spinal cord will never physically be the same, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be trained to be just as efficient.
Hopefully, this article helped you understand that there is a hopeful future for spinal cord injury recovery and that as long as you’re willing to put in the work and keep stimulating neural connections, results are possible.
Need more inspiration? Check out these spinal cord injury recovery stories!