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Identifying the Psychological Effects of Spinal Cord Injury & How to Manage Them

psychological effects of spinal cord injury

Understanding the psychological effects of spinal cord injury can help you take action to improve your motivation for recovery.

Spinal cord injury can require a lot of changes to your daily life and while it won’t directly affect your mental status, it can definitely lead to some psychological changes.

This article will go over the factors that can contribute to mental health problems, signs to look out for, and the best ways to manage the psychological effects of spinal cord injury.

Factors That Can Affect Mental Health After Spinal Cord Injury

A lot of different factors can contribute to psychological changes after spinal cord injury.

Some of the most common factors include:

  • Chronic pain. Pain can negatively affect your mood, and make it difficult to move or focus.
  • Impaired mobility. Paralysis/weakness may make it more difficult for you to participate in your favorite activities, at least initially.
  • Lack of independence. Having to rely on others more frequently because you can’t use the bathroom or eat on your own, for example, can take a toll on your mental health.
  • Medications. Many people will be prescribed very strong painkillers after spinal cord injury that can affect the way the brain works. Similarly, they can become addictive, so they are not ideal for long-term use.
  • Poor diet. What you eat can definitely affect how you feel. Some foods can boost your mood and activity levels, while others will make you feel down and sluggish.
  • Substance Use. High-stress situations can lead a lot of people to turn to alcohol or other substances for comfort. While it might provide some temporary relief, it also impairs judgment and causes emotional instability.
  • Physical Inactivity. Physical inactivity will lead to poor circulation, reduced metabolic rate, and increased risk of injury.
  • Poor Sleep Quality. Sleep can be interrupted by a lot of secondary effects of spinal cord injury like chronic pain and respiratory complications.
  • Financial Problems. Some spinal cord injury patients may be unable to return to their jobs or hold down a job in general.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury. If a traumatic event causes TBI along with your SCI, you may experience cognitive impairments that affect your personality and behavior.
  • Isolation. Feeling alone can cause you to have negative thoughts. You may feel stuck while those around you are moving on with their lives.

The good news is that most of these factors can be treated, avoided, or adapted to better suit your physical abilities.

Psychological Effects of Spinal Cord Injury

how spinal cord injury can affect your mental health

As you’ll see a lot of the symptoms of these conditions overlap, so it is common to experience multiple psychological effects of spinal cord injury.

Many of these conditions can even contribute to the other.

1. Depression

Depression is more than just feeling down. It’s overwhelming and can persistently interfere with your ability to enjoy life after spinal cord injury.

The estimated rate of people experiencing depression after spinal cord injury ranges from 11-37%

Symptoms of depression after spinal cord injury include:

  • Lack of interest/ motivation/ concentration
  • Oversleeping/ undersleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy
  • Hopelessness
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm

2. Anxiety

The prevalence of anxiety after spinal cord injury is estimated to be about 15-32%.

Symptoms of anxiety following spinal cord injury include:

  • Restlessness/ constant worry
  • Irritability
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Panic attacks (heart pounding, difficulty breathing, sweating, stomach in knots)
  • Social withdrawal

3. High Stress

Everyone experiences stress to some degree. However, many people with SCI develop high levels of stress because SCI causes such an unexpected and dramatic change in lifestyle.

Symptoms of high levels of stress following spinal cord injury include:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Irritability
  • Difficulties focusing

4. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

For some individuals with SCI, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop several months following the traumatic injury.

Symptoms of PTSD after spinal cord injury include:

  • Negativity
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Emotional numbness
  • Flashbacks/ dreams of the traumatic event
  • Hypervigilance
  • Difficulties sleeping

5. Emotional Fatigue

Sometimes you get so caught up in your thoughts that it prevents you from focusing or getting anything done.

The greatest levels of fatigue are reported amongst younger people and those who have not had SCI for very long.

Emotional fatigue is more based on the notion that individuals aren’t able to do things as easily as they did prior to injury.

Symptoms of emotional fatigue after spinal cord injury include:

  • Low energy
  • Lack of motivation
  • Frustration

Managing Psychological Effects of Spinal Cord Injury

best ways to manage psychological effects of spinal cord injury

Failure to properly manage the psychological effects of spinal cord injury can interfere with rehabilitation efforts and slow down recovery.

Let’s go over some effective methods of managing your mental health after spinal cord injury.


Mental disorders like depression and anxiety are caused by a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors.

Generally, the medications prescribed for managing mental health problems after spinal cord injury, like antidepressants, can help to regulate the neurotransmitter levels in your brain responsible for mood, deep sleep, appetite, focus, and reward perception.

Make sure to alert your physician of all other medications you are taking because not all medications mix well together and can cause negative side effects.


Exercise is crucial for improving circulation and getting oxygen to the brain.

When you exercise, your body releases chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins, and dopamine.

These chemicals can help boost your mood, alertness, motivation, and relieve pain.


What you eat can significantly affect your mental health.

This analysis found that diets high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, fish, olive oil, and antioxidants were associated with a decreased risk of depression.

In contrast, a diet high in red or processed meats, sweets, high-fat dairy products, refined grains, and low in fruits and vegetables were associated with increased risk of depression.


Sometimes you just need to express your feelings out loud.

A psychotherapist can help guide your thoughts, identify the root of your problems, and help lead you toward the solutions you need to cope with your mental health.

It focuses on helping you understand your feelings rather than just giving you a temporary treatment.

Psychotherapy can provide a more long-term solution to psychological changes after spinal cord injury.

Build a Strong Support System

Surrounding yourself with friends and family will help keep your spirits high during this difficult adjustment time.

Consider joining a spinal cord injury support group to meet people who are experiencing the same things as you.

By sharing experiences, you can help one another cope and be aware of potential challenges you may face in the future.

Spinal Cord Injury and Mental Health

mental health evaluation for psychological changes after sci

Spinal cord injury recovery is both a physical and mental challenge.

Adapting to life after spinal cord injury can require a lot of change, so take your time and don’t feel discouraged if you can’t perform tasks as well or as quickly as you used to.

Ignoring your mental health will negatively affect your motivation and efforts toward recovery, so experimenting with treatment is key.

It’s important to understand that mental health problems after a traumatic event like spinal cord injury are not your fault.

However, it is up to you to be proactive about managing your mental health and seek help.

Don’t hesitate to get an evaluation from a mental health professional for an official diagnosis and proper treatment. Good luck!

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