Spinal cord injury exercises generally focus on improving mobility by stretching tight muscles, moving the joints through their full range of motion, and strengthening weakened muscles.
A spinal cord injury disrupts the transmission of messages between the brain and body. Exercise is essential for recovery because it re-teaches the brain, spinal cord, and muscles how to work in sync again.
This article will guide you through some of the best spinal cord injury exercises, but first, let’s go over the mechanisms behind spinal cord injury recovery.
Why You Should Exercise After SCI
While damage to the spinal cord cannot be reversed, the spinal cord is capable of adapting through neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself because spared neural pathways at one’s level of injury are capable of picking up the slack and learning new functions. This would apply to individuals who have an incomplete SCI, however is not typically possible with a complete injury.
Consistently repeating weakened movements helps stimulate the spinal cord and promote neurological adaptations.
In other words, the more you practice spinal cord injury exercises, the greater your chances of improving mobility are.
However, it’s also important to understand that neuroplasticity is limited. Therefore, the more spared neural pathways an individual has, the better their chances of recovery.
Now that you understand why exercise is important for spinal cord injury recovery, let’s go over exercises you can practice to promote neuroplasticity.
Passive Range of Motion Exercises
While every spinal cord injury will result in different functional outcomes, all spinal cord injury patients are capable of practicing passive range of motion exercises.
Passive range of motion exercises do not require the patient to exert any energy. Instead, a therapist or caregiver will move the patient’s body for them.
However, individuals who can control their movements should try to actively perform range of motion exercises on their own, to whatever degree possible. If you can only move a certain muscle a small amount, activate the muscle to the extent possible yourself first, then have your caregiver take over for the remaining range of motion.
The purpose of passive range of motion exercises is to move the joints through their full range of motion to prevent stiffness and promote circulation in paralyzed/weakened areas of the body.
The following video will guide you through effective passive range of motion exercises SCI patients can practice with their caregiver.
- Shoulder flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, and rotation (0:29)
- Elbow flexion, extension, supination, and pronation (1:05)
- Wrist flexion, extension, and hyperextension (1:21)
- Radial flexion and ulnar flexion (1:33)
- Finger abduction, adduction, flexion, and extension (1:44)
- Hip flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, and rotation (2:38)
- Knee flexion and extension (3:01)
- Ankle plantarflexion, dorsiflexion, and rotation (3:14)
- Toe abduction, adduction, flexion, and extension (3:34)
Try to work on passive range of motion exercises at least once every day to minimize tightness in the joints.
Spinal Cord Injury Exercises for the Legs
Practicing leg exercises after spinal cord injury will help strengthen the muscles necessary for mobility, reduce muscle atrophy, and stimulate adaptive changes in the spinal cord.
To get you warmed up, the following video will demonstrate various leg stretches for SCI patients. All you will need is a strap, resistance band, or large towel.
Because spinal cord injury can also affect one’s ability to feel, SCI patients need to be careful and pull gently when stretching.
Now that the leg muscles are all stretched out, let’s go over some leg exercises:
- Seated Marches: Sit at the edge of the seat and alternate raising the knees.
- Straight Leg Lifts: Lay down with the legs straightened and lift one leg without bending at the knees. When the leg is as high as it can go, hold for a few seconds. Bring the leg back down and repeat with the other leg. If possible, try to engage your core to the extent possible while doing this exercise, to avoid putting undue stress on the lower back.
- Ankle Pumps: Lay down and point the toes down so that the ankle is extended. Then, raise the feet upwards towards the knees to flex the ankles. This exercise mimics the motions the ankles make when walking.
- Knee Squeezes: Place an item in between your knees and press them together so it doesn’t drop. Hold for 10-20 seconds. To make the exercise more challenging, use a smaller object or piece of paper.
Spinal Cord Injury Exercises for the Hands
The following hand exercises will help develop fine motor skills after spinal cord injury:
- Hand Clenches: Curl the fingers in, hold for 3-5 seconds, and then straighten the fingers back out.
- Finger Spreads: Lay the hand flat on a tabletop or wall. Then, practice spreading the fingers apart and bringing them back together.
- Making O’s: Alternate tapping the tips of each finger to the thumb.
These simple hand therapy exercises can be extremely effective; however, many people get bored and lose the motivation to keep practicing the same movements. MusicGlove is a hand therapy device that makes it easy to perform lots of repetitions.
It combines music, gaming, and hand therapy to keep patients engaged and performing the repetitions they need to boost recovery.
In fact, MusicGlove is scientifically proven to boost hand functions in just 2 weeks!
Another great way to improve hand function after spinal cord injury is to use therapy putty. It adds resistance and stays imprinted to show which muscles in the hand are predominantly used.
This video will teach you how to develop your hand muscles using putty:
Spinal Cord Injury Exercises for the Core
It’s essential to practice core exercises after spinal cord injury because they can help stabilize the trunk for better balance and posture.
This video will guide you through some wheelchair-friendly exercises to strengthen the core. Before practicing these exercises, always check that the brakes on your wheelchair are set. Additionally, some of these exercises may not be appropriate for you if you still have “spinal precautions,” which are certain movements that need to be avoided after your SCI. Please verify with your doctor and therapists if there are any questions about this.
- Deep Breathes (0:08) Engage your core muscles while taking deep breathes.
- Back Extensor Isometric Hold (1:00) Sit at the edge of the seat and lean back against the chair. Hold for a few seconds and use your core muscles to sit straight again.
- Trunk Rotation (1:59) Twist your torso to the side without moving the lower body
- Lateral Trunk Flexion (4:03) Gently lean to the side without moving the lower body
- Seated Trunk Extension (6:11) Lean forward as far as you comfortably can and use your back muscles to sit back up.
- Trunk Circles (7:29) Move your trunk in large circular motions clockwise and counterclockwise.
Spinal Cord Injury Exercises: Key Points
Everyone will have different functional outcomes after spinal cord injury, so don’t feel discouraged if an exercise is too difficult. You can always adjust exercises so that they are a better fit for your level of mobility.
The best way to improve any sort of function after SCI is to consistently practice them. This will stimulate neurological adaptations in undamaged regions of the spinal cord (assuming that you have an ‘incomplete’ injury) and strengthen the pathways for that movement.
Hopefully, you try these spinal cord injury exercises for yourself. Good luck and happy recovery!
Featured Image: iStock.com/nautiluz56