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Spinal Cord Injury Recovery: What Does The Road to Recovery Involve?

understanding spinal cord injury recovery

Spinal cord injury recovery heavily relies on retraining your muscles, spinal cord, and brain to work in sync again through consistent repetition.

While there’s currently no cure for spinal cord injury, it’s definitely possible to recover sensation and motor control.

To help you understand what spinal cord injury recovery may involve, this article will discuss:

Understanding the Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Process

Generally, the smaller the initial nerve damage, the better the long-term recovery outlook.

Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to make adaptive changes based on our behaviors. It is the primary mechanism that allows individuals to recover functions affected by spinal cord injury. Consistently practicing highly repetitive and task-specific movements reinforces demand for those functions, which promotes circuit reorganization.  

Whether a spinal cord injury is complete or incomplete plays an critical role in determining recovery outlook. A complete SCI refers to a lesion that completely transects the spinal cord, leaving no spared neural pathways to transmit messages between the brain and areas below the level of injury. In contrast, an incomplete SCI refers to partial damage at the level of injury, which results in spared neural pathways.

Only undamaged neural pathways are capable of utilizing neuroplasticity. Therefore, in order to recover functions innervated below the level of injury, a spinal cord injury must be incomplete. Likewise, the milder a lesion is, the more spared neural pathways exist, and the greater the potential for recovery.

It’s suggested that the most recovery occurs in the first 6 months following a spinal cord injury because the central nervous system experiences a heightened state of plasticity. Once your spinal cord injury is stabilized, it’s ideal to take advantage of this heightened state of plasticity and start working on rehabilitation as soon as possible.

However, that does not mean recovery is limited to a specific time frame. The spinal cord never runs out of neuroplasticity, so as long as you continue to stimulate it through repetitive movement, the potential to improve is there. Individuals may continue to see improvements years after their injury.

Up next, we’ll discuss various rehabilitation therapies involved in the spinal cord injury recovery process.

Rehabilitation Therapies for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

Every spinal cord injury and its recovery process is unique. Depending on the location and severity of the spinal cord injury, individuals will experience various motor and/or sensory impairments. Additionally, secondary complications may develop, which can also affect mobility, motivation, and energy levels.

Therefore, a personalized approach to rehabilitation is ideal. Below, we’ll discuss 4 rehabilitation therapies that are often involved in spinal cord injury recovery.

1. Physical Therapy

physical therapy for spinal cord injury recovery

Physical therapy helps individuals with spinal cord injuries improve their functional abilities through targeted exercises.

A spinal cord injury disrupts communication between the brain and body; therefore, you have to reteach the central nervous system and muscles to work in sync again through repetitive stimulation.

A physical therapist will assess your functional abilities, develop a personalized exercise regimen, and guide you through the exercises.

Even if you have no motor control at all, physical therapy can be beneficial. For example, a PT may help you perform passive range of motion exercises. These are exercises that do not require energy exertion. Instead, the therapist moves your limbs for you to maintain full range of motion, promote circulation, and stimulate the spinal cord.

Regardless of one’s functional abilities, physical therapy can help individuals with spinal cord injuries improve their motor functions.

Some exercises and methods that may be included in an individual with spinal cord injury’s rehabilitation plan include:

  • Stretching
  • Strength training
  • Aerobic exercises
  • Range of motion exercises
  • Aquatic therapy
  • Gait training

Learn more about physical therapy for spinal cord injury recovery »

2. Occupational Therapy

Loss of motor control and sensation following a spinal cord injury may make it challenging for individuals to care for themselves. Occupational therapy focuses on helping individuals learn how to be as functional as possible by practicing new ways to perform activities of daily living.

Activities of daily living include:

  • Transferring
  • Eating
  • Grooming
  • Toileting
  • Dressing
  • Bathing

Occupational therapy helps prepare individuals with spinal cord injuries for the transition back to everyday life. This type of rehabilitation therapy can be highly motivating because the activities have direct, real-world applications.

Learn more about occupational therapy for spinal cord injury recovery »

3. Psychotherapy

While a spinal cord injury doesn’t directly affect mental processes, it can be a significant source of stress.

Secondary complications that may develop as a result of spinal cord injury include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These mental health conditions can significantly affect motivation, energy levels, and sleep quality. Without the mental strength to keep going, recovery may be delayed.  

A psychotherapist can help individuals understand why they’re feeling the way they do and learn effective ways to cope.

4. Speech Therapy

Individuals with a higher-level spinal cord injury may struggle with breathing and coughing due to impaired diaphragm control.

If respiratory functions are weakened after a spinal cord injury, a speech-language pathologist can provide an assessment and help you work on breathing exercises.

In the following section, we’ll discuss additional factors that may affect spinal cord injury recovery.

Additional Factors That Affect SCI Recovery

factors that affect spinal cord injury recovery outlook

While the severity and level of a spinal cord injury play a significant role in determining prognosis, there are additional factors that may also contribute, including:

  • Secondary complications such as pain, pressure sores, and depression may interfere with physical activity and energy levels.  
  • Intensity of rehabilitation plays a significant role in recovery speed. Consistent repetitions are essential for promoting neuroplasticity.
  • Physical activity levels can affect both your physical and mental health. Individuals with low physical activity levels have an increased risk of pressure sores, depression, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and arthritis.
  • Diet helps keep your body in the best condition to recover. A spinal cord injury can negatively affect your skin, weight, bone density, and digestion, so it’s important to eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods to help combat these changes.
  • Medication side effects may affect mood, energy levels, and digestion. While medications may help individuals manage their pain, mental health disorders, or sleeping problems, they may not be ideal for long-term use.

All these factors must be taken into account when managing a spinal cord injury. Generally, the better you are at adopting healthy behaviors, the better your recovery outlook.

The Importance of Repetition for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

Every spinal cord injury recovery is different, but all individuals must repetitively practice to get better.

Ultimately, you have to teach your body how to move all over again. Many of our functional abilities are overlooked because we’re so accustomed to performing them without much thought. We forget that there was once a time when we couldn’t perform them at all.

When developing any skill, practice is essential. As long as individuals have an incomplete spinal cord injury, the potential for recovery exists.

We hope this article helped you better understand the processes behind spinal cord injury recovery. Good luck!

Photos from top to bottom: iStock/Boonyachoat/shironosov/AnnaStills

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