While there are some generalizations about spinal cord injury recovery time, it’s important to understand that everyone experiences SCI recovery a little differently.
There’s a common misconception that people only have a certain amount of time after their spinal cord injury to recover and after that, they’re as good as they’re ever going to get.
Today, we’re going to debunk that myth and explain why even years after your spinal cord injury, there’s still hope for recovery.
Understanding Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Time
Because every spinal cord injury and its recovery process are unique, it’s difficult to give an exact time frame for recovery.
However, research shows that the most recovery occurs within the first 3-6 months after spinal cord injury.
This is because during that timeframe after SCI, the spinal cord experiences heightened levels of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to make neurological adaptations, which allows individuals to relearn functions affected by SCI.
Because damaged neurons in the spinal cord are not capable of regenerating, functions affected by SCI must be relearned and rewired to healthy, spared neural pathways if they exist (as is the case with incomplete injuries).
While most recovery occurs within the first months after spinal cord injury, individuals are capable of recovery years after their injury. As long as their spinal cord injury is incomplete and spared neural pathways between the brain and areas below the level of injury exist, there is always potential to improve.
In the following section, we’ll discuss various factors that affect spinal cord injury recovery time.
Factors That Influence Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Time
Many different factors can affect spinal cord injury recovery time, including:
- Completeness of injury. Completeness of injury refers to the severity of the spinal cord lesion. Ultimately, the more spared neural pathways you have at your level of injury, the greater your recovery outlook.
- Location of injury. The higher your level of injury, the more functions will likely need to be rehabilitated.
- Physical activity levels. Individuals that are physically inactive generally have poor circulation and are more susceptible to developing secondary complications.
- The intensity of rehabilitative therapies. The more you stimulate the spinal cord through repetitive and task-specific movements, the better the potential for recovery.
- Development of secondary complications. Secondary complications such as pain may interfere with motivation and performance.
Now that you understand the various factors that can influence spinal cord injury recovery time, let’s discuss how to promote a quicker recovery.
How to Promote a Quicker Recovery After Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injury recovery is all about promoting neuroplasticity.
The best way to promote neuroplasticity is through massed practice. Continuously practicing movements weakened by SCI stimulates and reinforces demand for those functions. Ultimately, the more you practice, the better the central nervous system gets at making neuroadaptive changes.
Below are 5 ways to promote quicker recovery after spinal cord injury.
1) Seek Early Intervention
Early stabilization of spinal cord injuries is essential for minimizing damage.
Typically, spinal cord injuries are the result of vertebrae compressing the spinal cord. The longer the spinal cord is compressed, the more damage from secondary complications occurs.
The damage can occur from the spinal cord injury itself, but also from secondary processes. By seeking immediate medical attention following a spinal cord injury, individuals can significantly reduce overall damage to the spinal cord and cut down on recovery time.
2) Participate in Intensive Rehabilitation Therapy
It’s suggested that the earlier you enter rehabilitation, the better the functional outcomes. Because every spinal cord injury is unique, a personalized approach to recovery is essential.
Rehabilitative therapy for spinal cord injury recovery typically consists of physical and occupational therapy (and possibly speech therapy if your injury is a higher-level one and affected any respiratory functions). Professionals will assess your functional abilities and create a personalized rehabilitation plan.
Your physical therapist will help you build strength, flexibility, and balance through targeted exercise.
In contrast, an occupational therapist will help you become as functional as possible by having you practice activities of daily living such as bathing, grooming, and feeding.
These rehabilitative therapies will focus on maximizing your independence through highly repetitive and task-specific activities and exercises.
3) Practice at Home
While rehabilitative therapies are effective, the best way to speed up your recovery is to make sure that you’re also practicing the exercises and activities at home once you’re discharged from the hospital and engaging in outpatient therapies.
This increases the overall number of repetitions you’re performing, which will ultimately promote quicker results.
4) Improve Your Diet
What you eat matters as it affects your energy levels, mood, and body composition. These are all essential factors that influence motivation and performance during spinal cord injury recovery.
The key to maintaining a healthy diet after spinal cord injury is consistency. Extreme changes in diet can be overwhelming and difficult to sustain. Spinal cord injury is a lifelong condition, so it’s essential to find changes you can stick to long-term.
5) Be Aware and Proactive About Secondary Effects of Spinal Cord Injury
Various secondary effects can develop after a spinal cord injury, including:
- pressure sores
- bowel and bladder dysfunction
- autonomic dysreflexia
- respiratory complications
Being aware of these potential effects will help you be proactive and seek early intervention. Without proper management, these complications can progress and interfere with spinal cord injury recovery.
Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Time: Key Points
Although most recovery occurs within the first 3-6 months following a spinal cord injury, recovery can continue well past that period.
Consistently practicing affected movements/activities will help stimulate the central nervous system to make neuroadaptive changes.
We hope this article helped you better understand how spinal cord injury recovery works as well as the most effective ways to promote a quicker recovery. Good luck!
Featured images: iStock/kzenon/Lyndon Stratford