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What to Expect After a Severe Spinal Cord Injury: Is Recovery Possible?

severe spinal cord injury recovery

Life after a severe spinal cord injury can require many adjustments and drastically change your daily life.

Most people recover at least some functions. However, every spinal cord injury is unique, so it’s essential to understand the various factors that affect recovery.

This article will go over what to expect after a severe spinal cord injury, factors that affect recovery outlook, and how to cope.

Is Recovery After Severe Spinal Cord Injury Possible?

While ‘severe spinal cord injury’ sounds straightforward, it’s not exactly clear what makes an SCI severe. Severity is relative and can be interpreted differently by each person.

Rather than identifying a spinal cord injury as mild or severe, it’s more effective to specify whether it is complete or incomplete.

A complete spinal cord injury is when the spinal cord is damaged all across the level of injury. This means that brain signals cannot travel below that level of injury.

In contrast, an incomplete spinal cord injury is when connections between the brain and body below your level of injury are spared. Incomplete spinal cord injuries can still result in significant loss of control and sensation.

Damage to the central nervous system cannot heal itself. However, undamaged areas of the brain and spinal cord can rewire themselves through neuroplasticity. The more you practice weak movements, the more you stimulate adaptive changes.

Therefore, individuals with incomplete spinal cord injuries may be able to recover weakened functions through their spared neural pathways.

Your Spinal Cord Injury Might Not Be as Severe as It Seems

doctor explaining spinal shock to severe sci patient

Featured image: ©iStock.com/Ergin Yalcin

After a spinal cord injury, many chemical reactions and inflammatory responses occur. They can cause damage and swelling to the spinal cord, which can disrupt blow flow.

Poor blood flow deprives the spinal cord of oxygen and other essential nutrients. This can cause your body to dysfunction and experience spinal shock.

Spinal shock is when you temporarily lose all reflexes, control, and sensation below your level of injury.

Once swelling in your spinal cord starts to die down, blood flow will be restored, and reflexes may gradually return. Spinal shock typically lasts between 4-12 weeks.

It isn’t until spinal shock is over that severe spinal cord injury patients will truly know how much motor control and sensation is preserved.

Level of Spinal Cord Injury

how level of SCI affects spinal cord injury rehabilitation

Your level of injury will help determine which functions will be affected or not.

Brain signals must travel down the spinal cord for your body to act. However, after a severe spinal cord injury, brain signals may not be able to get past the injury site.

Each level of the spinal cord innervates a different area of the body.

The higher your level of injury, the more functions will be affected.

For example, someone with a severe C5 spinal cord injury may have paralysis from the shoulders down. In contrast, someone with a severe L3 injury may only have paralysis in the legs.

Click here to learn more about your specific level of injury »

Living a Fulfilling Life After Severe Spinal Cord Injury

man with severe spinal cord injury using wheelchair

©iStock.com/Jelena Danilovic

A severe spinal cord injury can be extremely overwhelming to deal with. However, life after spinal cord injury can be just as (if not more) fulfilling as it was before.

Here are some tips to help you cope after severe SCI:

1. Keep Your Loved Ones Close

Your friends and family want to help you and see you get better. Let them.

After a spinal cord injury, your body may feel completely foreign. Loved ones can help provide a sense of normalcy and comfort.

2. Join a Support Group

As much as you love your friends and family, sometimes, they’re not going to understand what you’re going through.

Joining a spinal cord injury support group is a great way to interact and share experiences with other people who have been in your shoes.

Online support groups or forums may be more convenient for spinal cord injury patients who do not have available transportation.

3. Hire a Caregiver If Necessary

A severe spinal cord injury can force you to be very dependent on others.

Some people don’t want to burden their loved ones with tasks like using the toilet or bathing.

Instead, they find it much more comfortable to hire a caregiver.

4. Don’t Give Up on Rehabilitation

If you have an incomplete spinal cord injury, don’t give up on rehabilitation!

The key to SCI recovery is repetition. The more you repeat weak movements, the more you promote the spinal cord’s ability to adapt through spared connections.

Thousands of repetitions are required to stimulate neurological changes, so make sure to practice outside of your standard physical therapy session.

5. Use Adaptive Tools

Adaptive tools are designed to help individuals with disabilities become more independent.

For example, if you can’t bend your wrists, you may need foldable utensils that make it easier to reach your mouth.

Typically, an occupational therapist will assess your abilities and recommend specific adaptive tools.

6. Find New Hobbies

It’s essential to seek things that will bring you joy.

Chances are, you can still participate in many of your favorite pre-injury hobbies. You just have to be willing to adapt.

This can also be a great opportunity for you to explore and discover new hobbies.

Severe Spinal Cord Injury: Key Points

Many factors can influence the recovery outlook for severe spinal cord injuries, including:

  • completeness of injury
  • level of injury
  • spinal shock
  • secondary complications (i.e. pain, spasticity, depression, anxiety, pressure sores)
  • intensity of rehabilitative therapies

Everyone experiences spinal cord injury differently, so it’s important to be open to change and find what works for you.

Good luck!

Featured image: ©iStock.com/demaerre

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