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Managing Muscle Spasms After Spinal Cord Injury to Improve Quality of Life

managing muscle spasms after spinal cord injury

Did you know that up to 78% of people experience muscle spasms after spinal cord injury?

If left unmanaged, muscle spasms can drastically affect your quality of life by causing pain, interrupting a good night’s rest, and restricting your ability to perform activities of daily living.

In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about muscle spasms after spinal cord injury and how to effectively manage them.

What Causes Muscle Spasms After Spinal Cord Injury?

Your body sends sensory information to the brain via the spinal cord, and the brain processes that information and sends directions back down to the muscles to react.

After a spinal cord injury, sensory information can’t reach the brain because it can’t get past the site of injury.

Instead, that stimulus travels back down to the muscles, causing them to involuntarily contract.

These involuntary muscle contractions are also known as spasticity and can show up in the form of jerky muscle spasms and prolonged stiffness.

Spinal Shock and Muscle Tone

why youre experiencing muscle spasms after spinal cord injury

Generally, muscle spasms occur after a period of flaccid muscle tone.

After a spinal cord injury, your body may go into a state of spinal shock due to swelling of the spinal cord.

During spinal shock, you experience a temporary loss of functions and reflexes below your level of injury. The muscles go floppy and cannot contract.

As swelling dies down and blood flow is restored, some innervation below your level of injury may gradually start to return.

You’ll likely experience the other extreme, which is when the reflexes become hyperresponsive, resulting in jerky, muscle spasms.

Benefits of Muscle Spasms After Spinal Cord Injury

Believe it or not, muscle spasms after spinal cord injury can be helpful.

Increased muscle tone in the legs can help individuals prop themselves up to stand, walk, or perform transfers.

Some movement is better than no movement. Even though muscle spasms after spinal cord injury are involuntary, they help prevent muscle atrophy and promote circulation in otherwise paralyzed areas of the body.

Because of paralysis, many SCI patients are unaware of when their bladders are full or when something is irritating their skin. Muscle spasms help alert you when something is bothering your body below your level of injury.

Managing Muscle Spasms After Spinal Cord Injury

If increased muscle tone becomes painful or debilitating, ask your doctor about what management interventions will be ideal for you.

Some popular forms of spasticity management include:

Physical Therapy

passive range of motion exercises for c6 spinal cord injury recovery

Physical therapy will emphasize repetitive exercise to reduce the excitability of hyperactive muscles.

Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself and recover functions affected by traumatic events like spinal cord injury.

The more you practice a movement, the more your central nervous system understands that there is a demand for that movement, which prompts rewiring.

Additionally, stretching is essential for managing muscle spasms. It helps lengthen spastic muscles to limit contractures and expand range of motion.

Orthotics

wearing orthotics can help manage muscle spasms after spinal cord injury

Muscle spasms can cause you to hit nearby objects, but if you wear a brace, the jerky movements are controlled.

Orthotic devices like braces and splints will help hold your body in place to prevent spastic muscles from contracting further.

They also mildly stretch tight muscles for continuous muscle lengthening.

Medications

Muscle relaxants are often prescribed to reduce general spasticity.

They work by altering the chemical balance in the central nervous system, which reduces action potential and temporarily inhibits muscle contractions.

Because they’re absorbed into the bloodstream, muscle relaxants will affect the entire body and wear off within a few hours.

Botox

botox injections to manage muscle spasms after sci

Botox is a nerve block that is directly injected into spastic muscles.

It provides temporary spasticity relief (3-6 months) but does not address the underlying problem that is causing the muscle to contract.

Afterwards, patients should take advantage of this period of reduced spasticity and focus on intensive physical therapy to promote neuroplasticity.   

Surgery

Surgery should only be considered if all other interventions prove to be ineffective.

Some individuals get an intrathecal baclofen pump implanted, which allows for a consistent delivery of Baclofen into the spinal column. Baclofen is a commonly-prescribed medication for spasticity.

Because it is directly administered to the spinal fluid, a smaller dose is needed, which reduces the risk of experiencing side effects like nausea, headache, and sedation.

Other surgeries involve nerve incisions to denervate the spastic muscle (rhizotomy) or manual lengthening procedures.

Muscle Spasms After Spinal Cord Injury: Key Points

Muscle spasms after spinal cord injury are extremely common due to disrupted communication between the brain and body.

Luckily, there are many ways to effectively manage them so that you can live an active and fulfilling life after spinal cord injury.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand why you’re experiencing muscle spasms after spinal cord injury and how to manage them. Good luck!

iStock/LSOphoto/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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Do you want to improve mobility after a spinal cord injury?

Depending on the severity of your spinal cord injury, there may be hope for improved mobility. Consistent at-home therapy is key to making this happen.

That’s why Flint Rehab created FitMi, a motion-sensing, gamified home recovery tool designed for neurological injury like SCI.

Here’s what others have said about it:

Say bye-bye to your Physiotherapist

“I purchased this wonderful equipment for the use of spasticity for my right hand. Initially I wasn’t sure if it would work because of the various treatments I tried and also many physiotherapists who tried their level best, but didn’t achieve any positive results.

However after trying FitMi, I could feel that slowly and steadily I am improving. It’s really a great device that minutely takes care of each and every muscle of your affected body part. The biggest plus point is, you can use this device anywhere, anytime with precise exercises that you need and also saves your money and time spent on your physiotherapist.

— Chandrakiran

It’s all about high repetition of therapeutic exercises

FitMi works by encouraging you to practice rehab exercises with high repetition. On average, survivors complete hundreds of repetitions per half hour session.

“Massed practice” like this helps stimulate and rewire the nervous system. While you can achieve massed practice with a written sheet of exercises, it can be tough to stick with it consistently — and consistency is key to recovery.

FitMi helps transform rehab exercises into an engaging, interactive experience. The yellow and blue “pucks” track your movement and provide feedback. All of this comes together for a motivating home therapy program.

A survivor named Tom put it perfectly:

“I believe this device will help me concentrate on making the repetitive actions needed to obtain further movement range in my wrist and hand and arm and therefore rating it with five stars. My occupational therapist recommended to give this a try. I have been using FitMi for just a few weeks. I feel more at ease in flexing.”

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