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Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation: How to Optimize Recovery

what to expect during spinal cord injury rehabilitation

Are you or a loved one about to start spinal cord injury rehabilitation?

To help you better understand the rehabilitation process, this article will go over the different types of therapies and factors that can affect your recovery.

Is Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Possible?

understanding spinal cord injury rehab

Damaged areas of the spinal cord cannot heal themselves.

However, the central nervous system has neuroplasticity, which is its ability to rewire itself and recover functions affected by SCI.

Neuroplasticity can be optimized through massed practice. The more repetitions you perform, the more rewiring and strengthening occurs.

Through rehabilitation therapies, incomplete spinal cord injury patients can relearn weakened functions.

Hundreds to thousands of repetitions are necessary to yield improvements. So if you want to recover, get ready to commit and work hard!

Important Factors That Affect Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

Every spinal cord injury is a little bit different depending on your level of injury, the severity of the lesion, and the secondary complications you experience.

1. Level of Injury

how level of SCI affects spinal cord injury rehabilitation

31 segments make up the spinal cord, and each of them innervates a different area and function of the body.

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

For example, a C5 spinal cord injury will affect control over your arms, trunk, and legs. In contrast, an SCI at a lower level of the spinal cord like L3 will only affect the legs from the knees down.

The more functions affected by spinal cord injury, the more rehabilitation will be required because each function has to be worked on individually through task-specific practice.

2. Severity of Injury

how severity of injury affects sci rehabilitation

The severity of your spinal cord injury also plays a significant role in rehabilitation outlook.

Spinal cord lesions cannot heal themselves.

The only way to naturally restore functions that are damaged by spinal cord injury is to rely on spared neural pathways that run along the entire spinal cord.

Through neuroplasticity, these spared neural pathways can sprout new axons and reorganize their circuits to recover functions.

The less severe the damage to your spinal cord, the more spared neural pathways there are.

For example, in the illustration above, Lesion A is more severe than Lesion B. Therefore, Lesion B has more spared neural pathways that can be utilized to recover functions affected by spinal cord injury.

3. Secondary Complications

challenges of sci rehabilitation

©iStock.com/SARINYAPINNGAM

Depending on many factors like pre-existing conditions, physical activity levels, diet, and medications, a wide range of secondary complications can be experienced.

Common secondary complications of spinal cord injury include:

These complications can interfere with your physical performance and mental motivation to pursue recovery.

Therefore, it’s essential to be alert for symptoms of secondary complications and seek treatment early.

Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Methods

So what does spinal cord injury rehabilitation consist of?

Physical Therapy

physical therapy spinal cord injury rehabilitation

©iStock.com/LSOphoto

Physical therapy focuses on improving motor functions through exercises.

Following a spinal cord injury, you have to reteach your brain, spinal cord, and body to work in sync again through task-specific, repetitive movement.

Physical therapists understand what exercises will be the most effective for your specific abilities and can provide guidance so that you’re never wondering whether you’re performing an exercise correctly or not.

Occupational Therapy

occupational therapy for sci rehab

©iStock.com/GaryRadler

Occupational therapy works on strengthening your functional abilities through a more practical approach.

It focuses on practicing activities of daily living to ease the transition back to everyday life after spinal cord injury.

Activities of daily living include:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Grooming
  • Getting dressed
  • Eating
  • Transferring
  • Toileting

Occupational therapy can also involve teaching you how to use adaptive tools and equipment like wheelchairs, universal cuffs, and reachers to make tasks easier.

Psychological Therapy

psychotherapy to manage mental health sci rehab

While physical and occupational therapy tends to focus more on the physical aspects of recovery, psychological therapy will help you deal with the emotional side of life after spinal cord injury.

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.

Psychotherapy will help make sure that your thoughts are in a good place and help provide resources and tips for coping.

For many spinal cord injury patients, it isn’t until they’re discharged and return home that the idea of having a spinal cord injury really hits.

This can be extremely overwhelming, and many patients struggle to make a smooth transition.

Therapy can help you process your thoughts and provide healthy solutions for easing emotional distress after spinal cord injury.

Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation at Home

spinal cord rehab exercises at home

©iStock.com/AndreyPopov

There’s no doubt that rehabilitative therapy is beneficial for spinal cord injury recovery.

However, you need to practice outside of your sessions to get effective results.

It’s like doing homework for school. You learn the lesson in the classroom, but you master it by studying on your own time.

As mentioned earlier, thousands of repetitions are required to promote neurological changes in the spinal cord.

The limited amount of time one has in their rehabilitative therapy session is simply not enough.

A considerable amount of time during your physical therapy session is spent for non-therapeutic purposes like moving equipment and setting up for the next exercise.

So unless you’re in an intensive spinal cord injury rehabilitation program that works with you every day for hours, you need to do your homework and practice what you learn in therapy at home.

Many individuals find it difficult staying motivated to perform repetitions at home. The FitMi makes it fun and easy to get your repetitions in.

It includes 40 exercises designed by physical and occupational therapists for an effective full-body workout.

Find out more about the FitMi»

How Long Does Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Take?

it's never too late for spinal cord injury rehabilitation

Neuroplasticity is heightened during the months following a spinal cord injury.

This means that the spinal cord is more sensitive to adaptive changes, which can speed up your recovery.

However, it’s important to understand that it’s never too late for spinal cord injury recovery because neuroplasticity never stops. There’s no window of opportunity that recovery is limited to.

Even years following your injury, your body is capable of making neurological adaptations.

Every spinal cord injury is unique, and the time it takes to recover will be different for everyone.

This is your journey, so focus on doing your best and know that that’s enough.

Understanding Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

spinal cord injury rehabilitation journey

©iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

The patient and their willingness to participate plays a significant role in determining the outcomes of rehabilitation.

Those who are more optimistic and motivated are more likely to perform the repetitions they need to optimize neural plasticity and improve functional mobility.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand what to expect during the rehabilitation process after spinal cord injury.

It’s never too late to start. The central nervous system is continually adapting, so as long as you’re willing to put the effort, we believe recovering after incomplete spinal cord injury is always possible.

Good luck!

Featured image: ©iStock.com/kzenon

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