Paralysis after spinal cord injury can make returning to everyday life challenging.
Damage to the spinal cord affects your ability to feel (sensation) and move (motor control).
You’re about to learn:
- how paralysis is classified
- whether it can be treated
- the consequences of not moving
- what you can do to live a fulfilling life despite having paralysis
Let’s get started!
Classifying Paralysis After Spinal Cord Injury
Whether paralysis is temporary or permanent depends on the severity of your spinal cord injury.
The areas of your body where you have paralysis depend primarily on your level of injury. The higher your level of injury, the more areas of your body will be affected.
Quadriplegia (aka tetraplegia) is when an individual has paralysis in all four limbs (their arms and legs). In contrast, paraplegia is when an individual has paralysis in two limbs (just the legs).
Spinal cord injuries can be complete or incomplete.
When an SCI is incomplete, it means that some neural connections between the brain and areas of the body below your level of injury have been spared.
In contrast, complete spinal cord injuries result in no spared neural connections, so the brain and areas below your level of injury cannot communicate.
Paralysis after spinal cord injury can be classified as:
Is It Possible to Recover from Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis?
Paralysis recovery mostly depends on whether your spinal cord injury is complete or incomplete.
Those with incomplete spinal cord injuries can recover damaged motor functions thanks to neuroplasticity.
By practicing task-specific, high-repetition movements, the central nervous system will understand that there’s a demand for that function and rewire itself.
The more repetitions you perform, the stronger the neural pathways for that movement become.
Our bodies are incredibly adaptive and many of the exact mechanisms regarding spinal cord injury recovery have yet to be fully understood.
Stay alert for signs of spinal cord injury recovery like spasticity, tingling, and pain.
Although they may not be the most pleasant sensations, it’s always better to feel something than nothing at all. It means that neural connections between your brain and body still exist!
Risks of Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis
Some common secondary complications that spinal cord injury patients with paralysis may experience include:
Bone and Muscle Weakness
With paralysis, you’re less likely to be physically active because it’s more difficult to control your movements.
This can result in weakened bone density (osteoporosis) and shrinking muscles (muscle atrophy).
Think ‘use it or lose it.’ Through everyday movements, bones and muscles are strengthened by bearing weight and exerting energy.
Paralysis and reduced physical activity go hand-in-hand and result in decreased bone and muscle density.
The body is extremely energy efficient. It takes more energy to move larger muscles, but if you don’t use them, they’ll shrink to preserve energy.
Weak bones and muscles increase your risk of serious injury. They create an unstable framework that make you more likely to fall and fracture your bones.
Developing pressure sores is another risk of paralysis after spinal cord injury.
Typically, when something irritates your skin, you’ll avoid putting pressure on that area for a while.
However, when you’re paralyzed, you won’t feel it and will continue to put prolonged pressure on that area of skin.
Eventually, circulation gets cut off and tissue starts to die, which allows for your bones to break through the skin in bony areas like the hips, knees, ankles, shoulders, elbows, and tailbone.
Bladder/ Bowel Accidents
If not properly managed, neurogenic bladder and bowel problems can result in frequent accidents.
Management for bladder and bowel dysfunction includes catheterization, medications, surgeries, and following a schedule.
Paralysis After Spinal Cord Injury Can be Temporary
Many times, the effects of your spinal cord injury are not as bad as they initially appear.
After a spinal cord injury, your spinal cord can go into a state of spinal shock where all reflexes and sensorimotor function below your level of injury are temporarily lost.
This can cause the muscles to feel limp, which tricks many patients into believing they have complete SCIs.
Spinal shock can last anywhere between a few weeks to months.
Functions and reflexes will gradually start to return as swelling and inflammatory processes in the spinal cord die down.
What You Can Do About Permanent Paralysis After Spinal Cord Injury
If you have a complete spinal cord injury, there are ways to successfully manage your health and continue to live a fulfilling life despite paralysis.
Hire a Caregiver
Depending on the severity of your injury, you may need to hire a caregiver.
While family members can make excellent caregivers, some people might feel like they’re burdening their loved ones and don’t want to ask them to help with tasks like using the toilet.
Most people with paraplegia are perfectly capable of living independently because they have full upper body functions.
In contrast, individuals with quadriplegia may find it difficult to live without a caregiver because of their limited arm control.
Caregivers can be hired full-time or part-time depending on your needs.
Passive Range of Motion Exercises
Many spinal cord injury patients have poor circulation in paralyzed areas of their bodies because of their limited mobility.
Passive range of motion exercise is when someone else moves your body for you so that you don’t need to exert any energy.
Performing passive range of motion exercises can help promote circulation and maintain range of motion in the joints.
Check out the video below to see some passive range of motion exercises you can have your caregiver help you practice.
With the help of a robotic exoskeleton, complete spinal cord injury patients may be able to walk again.
An exoskeleton is a wearable technology that helps facilitate leg movements.
All you have to do is shift your weight and the sensors in the exoskeleton will help you take steps, stand, and sit without losing balance.
This high-tech device is pricey (starting at ~$40,000) but if it helps you become more mobile and independent, it might be worth the expense.
Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis: Key Points
Paralysis after spinal cord injury can be experienced in many ways.
It can be:
- permanent or temporary
- affect various areas of the body depending on your level of injury
- sensory (inability to feel), motor (inability to move), or both
Learning to adapt to paralysis after spinal cord injury is necessary for maintaining your health and avoiding further complications.
Check out these 4 spinal cord injury recovery stories to see how normal people just like you pursued rehabilitation after paralysis.
Featured image: ©iStock.com/Motortion