Looking for upper extremity exercises for spinal cord injury?
The term ‘upper extremities’ is just another way to refer to your upper limbs. They consist of your shoulders, upper arms, elbows, forearms, and hands.
This article will provide you a comprehensive list of 15 upper extremity exercises that you can do all at home from the comfort of your wheelchair.
Let’s get started!
Upper Extremity Stretches for Spinal Cord Injury Patients
Every workout should start with some gentle stretching to warm you up and ensure that you don’t pull any muscles. Depending on the level and severity of your injury, you can also have someone assist or spot you to continue keeping your upper extremities moving.
1. Shoulder Rolls
Shrug your shoulders and slowly move them in circular motions backward for 30 seconds.
It’s important to for spinal cord injury patients to roll their shoulders backward because they tend to already roll their shoulders forward a lot when pushing their wheelchairs.
2. Arm Circles
You can do this stretch with only one arm at a time or with both arms.
Spread your arms out to your sides so that they are aligned with your shoulders.
Then, slowly make large circles forward and backward for 30 seconds.
3. Cross-Body Shoulder Stretch
Pull one arm across your body and bend your other arm to hold it in place.
Pull the arm further across your body until you feel the stretch (but no pain) and then hold for 30 seconds.
Then, repeat with the other arm.
4. Overhead Triceps Stretch
Raise one arm and bend your elbow so that your hand is behind your head or back.
Use the other arm to press down on the elbow until you feel the stretch and then hold for 30 seconds.
Repeat with the other arm.
5. Wall-Chest Stretch
Position yourself next to a wall or in a doorway. Hold your arm out to the side and then place the palm and inner arm against the wall or doorway with your elbow slightly bent.
Gently lean forward or rotate your body to the opposite side until you feel the stretch (without pain) and then hold for 30 seconds.
Repeat with the other side.
6. Wrist Flexion & Extension Stretch
Raise one arm out in front of you.
With your other arm, push the back of the palm down so that your hand and forearm form a 90° angle facing the floor.
Hold for 30 seconds and then press the palm upwards and back so that this time, the fingers face the ceiling.
Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat with the other wrist.
If it is challenging to do this with your arm stretched out in front of you, you can complete it with your elbow bent at your side.
7. Interlocked Fingers Stretch
Bring your hands together and interlock your fingers.
Then, straighten your arms out in front of you and twist your wrists so that the backs of your hands are facing you.
Hold for 30 seconds.
Upper Extremity Aerobics Exercises for Spinal Cord Injury Patients
These upper extremity exercises for spinal cord injury patients will get your heart pumping and improve overall circulation! Again, remember to stop if any of the exercises are causing you pain.
Rowing is an upper extremity exercise that does not require any leg movement.
Put your arms out in front of you and then pull them back in towards your body with your elbows bent. You should feel your shoulder blades squeezing together on your back.
9. Swim Strokes
There are a bunch of different swimming styles (backstroke, butterfly, freestyle, breaststroke, etc.), which is why swimming is one of the best ways to exercise a variety of different muscles.
Even just practicing the strokes from your wheelchair can be a great upper extremity workout for spinal cord injury patients.
Just like swimming, boxing involves a variety of different arm motions like the jab, hook, uppercut, and cross.
Even if you don’t use a punching bag and just practice the punches, the motions can get your heart pumping and strengthen your arms.
11. Hand Cycling
Handcycles are bikes that you pedal with your arms instead of your legs.
This is a great upper extremity exercise for spinal cord injury patients seeking a challenging workout.
Upper Extremity Strength Exercises for Spinal Cord Injury Patients
You can build strength by adding weight or resistance to any of the upper extremity exercises for spinal cord injury patients mentioned above.
For example, using a punching bag for your punches will add resistance, and wearing wrist weights that cuff around your arms will make any arm exercise more challenging.
You could even use your own bodyweight! It’s an effective and affordable way to stay in shape.
Here are some other upper extremity strength exercises for spinal cord injury patients:
12. Pushing Your Wheelchair
You probably already know this but maneuvering yourself on a wheelchair is a great way to build arm strength.
All you need to do to make it more challenging is to push yourself for longer distances and stop less frequently.
13. Wheelchair Pushups
First and most importantly, make sure that your wheelchair brakes are on.
Then, put your hands on the armrests and straighten your arms to lift yourself up slightly from the seat of the chair, then relax back down. To make this more challenging, try to hold yourself up with your arms straight for 10 seconds before returning to sitting in your chair.
14. Bicep Curls
Make sure that your arms are as close to your trunk as possible and then hold a dumbbell in one or both hands.
The inner part of the arm and face of your palms should be facing up.
Without moving your upper arm, bring the dumbbell up towards your shoulder, hold for a second, and then bring it back down.
15. Triceps Extensions
Hold any sort of weight (medicine ball, dumbbell, etc.) with both of your hands and raise it over your head.
Next, slowly lower the weight behind your head so that your elbows are bending.
Then, lift it back up so that your arms are straight again and repeat!
It is best to start with a lighter weight with this exercise, then to upgrade as needed.
Alternative Upper Extremity Exercises for Spinal Cord Injury Patients
If you don’t yet have the strength to perform these kinds of exercises, you can use tools like Flint Rehab’s FitMi (to develop motor control in your arms) or MusicGlove (to improve dexterity in the hands).
They both work by promoting repetitions in an engaging way. Task-specific training that encourages lots of repetition is necessary to promote plasticity in the spinal cord.
The more you practice, the more you engage your muscles, and the more familiar your body gets with the movements.
These upper extremity exercises for spinal cord injury patients will get easier to perform as you continue working on them, so adjust and practice what you can.