Is walking after spinal cord injury possible? What are the best treatments to walk again after spinal cord injury?
The spinal cord has neuroplasticity and may have the potential to rewire itself to recover functions like walking.
You’re about to learn what to expect when learning how to walk again and the best treatments for boosting mobility after spinal cord injury.
Let’s get started!
How Long Does It Take to Walk After Spinal Cord Injury?
Sometimes, the most physical recovery occurs within the first 6 months after spinal cord injury because the spinal cord experiences a heightened state of plasticity. However, for other spinal cord injury patients, learning how to walk after those initial 6 months takes longer because the spinal cord has experienced swelling. When inflammation decreases, healing and movement may develop, in some cases based on the specific injury.
There are many factors that can speed up or slow down your recovery after spinal cord injury.
Walking recovery depends on the location and severity of your injury but your diet, pre-existing health conditions, mental health, and physical activity levels may also contribute to the recovery process.
Think of your recovery holistically. The better you take care of your overall health, the more physically and mentally prepared you will be to pursue rehabilitation.
How the Level and Severity of Your Spinal Cord Injury Predict Chances of Walking Again
Because higher levels of injury are associated with more widespread paralysis, learning to walk again may take longer for some patients.
For example, a spinal cord injury near your neck may leave you paralyzed from the neck down. Rather than recovering walking, individuals with this type of spinal cord injury focus on recovering potential arm functions.
However, if you injure a lower area of the spinal cord like the lumbar region, your arms may not be affected and trunk function may be minimally affected. Therefore, the focus of therapy may be overall body strengthening and endurance as well as a return to walking, often with assistive devices.
Incomplete spinal cord lesions indicate that some connections between the brain and body below the level of injury have been spared.
Through this, neuroplasticity can be utilized to rewire the neural circuitry of the spinal cord.
Treatments to Walk Again After a Spinal Cord Injury
Let’s take a look at some promising treatments to walk again after a spinal cord injury.
Keep in mind that every spinal cord injury recovery is unique. What works for one person may not work for another.
1. Physical Therapy
Physical therapy is the foundation and starting point after a spinal cord injury.
The more aggressively you pursue physical therapy, the greater your chances of recovery.
Spinal cord injury disrupts your brain-body connection and your body needs to relearn how to walk again.
Learning to walk after SCI requires high repetition of movement. It’s the only way to get your body, spinal cord, and brain working in sync again.
The more you practice, the stronger the neural pathways get and the more familiar the movements become.
Spinal cord injury exercises are essential for keeping your body in the best condition to recover.
It keeps your blood flow regular, provides more oxygen to the brain, boosts your mood, keeps muscles toned to support your weight, and promotes balance.
2. Locomotor Training / Gait Training
Locomotor training is a type of physical therapy that specifically focuses on learning to walk again after spinal cord injury.
This type of gait training focuses on balance, strength, and developing muscle memory in the legs.
Locomotor training utilizes various assistive devices and equipment such as weight-supporting treadmills, parallel bars, braces, walkers, and crutches for support.
It’s effective because it’s task-specific and emphasizes repetition.
3. Electrical Stimulation
Another way patients are walking again after spinal cord injury is with the help of epidural electrical stimulation.
The process involves implanting an electrode array onto your spinal column. It sends electrical currents that mimic brain signals to areas below your level of injury to stimulate muscle movement.
Even patients with motor complete spinal cord injuries have been able to move again with the help of electrical stimulation.
It’s important to understand that the electrical stimulation is stimulating the movements. Moreover, the combination of electrical stimulation plus physical training is what allows recovery.
Watch the video below to see 3 patients who’ve taught themselves how to walk again after spinal cord injury with the help of electrical stimulation.
4. Stem Cell Treatment
One of the most promising treatments to walk again after a spinal cord injury is stem cell treatments.
Stem cells are exciting and innovative because of their ability to divide infinitely and differentiate into various types of cells.
Just like electrical stimulation, stem cell treatment for spinal cord injury recovery is still being researched and developed.
The goals behind stem cell therapy for spinal cord injury recovery include:
- Replacing cell damage
- Finding the optimal source of stem cells to use
- Restoring neural circuitry
- Determining the optimal time frame for treatment
- Stabilizing the microenvironment (reducing inflammation, scarring, and oxidative stress to minimize damage)
Can Someone with Spinal Cord Injury Walk Again?
See for yourself! Below are some videos of real patients who are now walking after SCI
Meet Daquan Minor, a teenager who got a T6 incomplete spinal cord injury after being in a car accident.
With lots of hope and determination, Daquan learned how to walk again through intensive physical therapy.
“Nobody was telling me I was going to walk again but nobody was telling me I wouldn’t, and that’s what kept me going.”
Even when chances of walking after spinal cord injury were slim, Daquan stayed hopeful and was able to pull through.
This is Kedar Nath Senapati.
He suffered a cervical spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from his chest down.
This video documents his 3 years of learning how to walk again after spinal cord injury.
He went through various stages of recovery (learning how to stand, using the parallel bars, transitioning to crutches, etc.) to be able to walk independently.
Recovering the ability to walk after a spinal cord injury is a long journey requiring patience. Trust in the process and celebrate every success and accomplishment.
Final Thoughts About Walking After Spinal Cord Injury
May this article inspire you to stay positive and work hard towards your recovery.
It won’t come quick or easy, but it will be worth it.
We highly encourage you to document your recovery process with pictures and videos. They’ll help remind you of how far you’ve come and keep you motivated.