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How to Maximize Mobility with Physiotherapy for Spinal Cord Injury

specialist helping patient at physiotherapy for spinal cord injury patients

Physiotherapy for spinal cord injury rehabilitation focuses on optimizing mobility through exercise.

Because every spinal cord injury is unique, every patient requires a personalized rehabilitation plan.

A physiotherapist will assess one’s functional abilities following a spinal cord injury, create a personalized exercise regimen, and help patients work towards realistic recovery goals.

This article will go over what to expect with physiotherapy for spinal cord injury and why it’s such an essential part of the rehabilitation process.

Why Physiotherapy for Spinal Cord Injury Works

Physiotherapy for spinal cord injury rehabilitation works because it promotes neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the spinal cord’s ability to rewire itself and relearn functions affected by injury.

The best way to promote neuroplasticity is through consistent repetition because it lets the spinal cord know that there is a demand for that function. The repetitive stimulation promotes neuroadaptive changes.

Physiotherapy targets weak muscles and consistently challenges patients to use them.

There’s no shortcuts or gimmicks. It simply focuses on the idea of ‘use it to improve it.’ The more repetitions a patient performs, the closer they get to recovery.

Now that you understand why physiotherapy works, let’s discuss the various exercises it can consist of.

Physiotherapy Exercises for Spinal Cord Injury

Depending on the location and severity of one’s spinal cord injury, different forms of physiotherapy may be ideal.

In the following sections, we’ll review 5 different types of physiotherapy exercises that a spinal cord injury patient might work on.  

1. Range of Motion Exercises

spinal cord injury patient practicing passive range of motion exercises with physiotherapist

Range of motion (ROM) exercises involve moving the joints through their entire range of motion.

It’s essential to practice ROM exercises to promote circulation and prevent stiff joints.

ROM exercises can be performed passively or actively.

Passive ROM involves having a caregiver or physiotherapist move the patient’s body for them. It requires no energy exertion from the patient, which makes it ideal for individuals with complete or severe spinal cord injuries.

In contrast, active ROM exercises are performed by the patient and do require energy exertion. If you’re able to even slightly control your movements, try ROM exercises independently to stimulate and strengthen neural pathways in the spinal cord.

ROM exercises will also accustom the body to various movements, which can help reduce the sensitivity of hyperactive muscles.

Discover passive range of motion exercises »

2. Stretches

spinal cord injury patient stretching at physiotherapy

Many spinal cord injury patients experience involuntary muscle contractions called spasticity due to disrupted communication between the brain and muscles.

Stretching can help lengthen spastic muscles and minimize pain caused by additional pressure on the joints.

The effects of stretching can last for hours and help prevent injuries during more strenuous exercise.

Well-stretched muscles can bear more pressure and effortlessly achieve full range of motion, which makes it easier to perform any exercise.

3. Aerobic Exercises

Aerobic exercise is another important type of exercise for spinal cord injury patients. This type of physiotherapy gets the heart pumping and boosts circulation.

Strengthening the heart with aerobic exercise is especially important after a spinal cord injury has reduced mobility. Weak heart performance can slow one’s pulse and decrease blood pressure. If left unaddressed, major organ systems can start to dysfunction.

Along with strengthening the heart, aerobic exercises also help with weight regulation, which many spinal cord injury patients may struggle with due to reduced mobility.

The following video will demonstrate some aerobic exercises a spinal cord injury patient might work on during physiotherapy.

4. Strengthening Exercises

A major outcome of spinal cord injury is reduced physical activity due to limited motor control. This is where strengthening exercises come into play as an essential part of physiotherapy for spinal cord injury patients.

Ultimately, the lack of movement can cause your muscles to weaken and start shrinking. This is called muscle atrophy. Individuals with muscle atrophy are susceptible to falls, fractures, poor circulation, and decreased metabolic rate. 

Therefore, it’s critical to practice strengthening exercises to maintain muscle mass. Maintaining muscle mass will make it easier to perform everyday activities so that individuals can regain independence after SCI.

5. Gait Training

patient walking again after developing leg functions at physical therapy

SCI patients who are further along in their physiotherapy or have milder motor impairments may work on activity-based therapies.

Gait training is a type of activity-based therapy that focuses on walking recovery.

Through the use of walkers, parallel bars, and weight-bearing treadmills, SCI patients can practice shifting their weight and maintaining balance.

Gait training may also include getting into a pool. The buoyancy of the water will help reduce tension on the joints so that patients can focus on perfecting their form.

Activity-based therapies provide a more practical and straightforward approach to spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

6. At-Home Physiotherapy Programs

FitMi home physiotherapy exercises for spinal cord injury patients

The repetitions performed in a single physiotherapy session are usually not enough to promote neuroadaptive changes. Therefore, it is essential to also practice physiotherapy exercises at home.

Without a physical therapist present at home, many patients struggle with accountability. Performing the same exercises over and over can get boring and cause patients to lose motivation. This is where at-home rehab technology can help.

For example, Flint Rehab’s FitMi is a home rehab device designed to encourage users to practice physiotherapy exercises on a regular basis at home. This helps users perform the repetitions necessary to relearn functions after spinal cord injury.

Physiotherapy for Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation: Key Points

Physiotherapy for spinal cord injury rehabilitation can be an extremely effective way to optimize mobility. Licensed professionals guide patients through exercises to help develop their specific weaknesses after SCI.

Ultimately, physiotherapy is effective because it helps stimulate neural pathways in the spinal cord.

We hope this article helped you better understand how physiotherapy can play a significant role in spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Photos from top to bottom: iStock/Antonio_Diaz/ChesiireCat/Halfpoint/kzenon

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