Spinal Cord Injury: FAQ
What is a spinal cord injury?
Your spinal cord is like a two-way multi-lane highway that starts at the base of your brain and carries messages to and from all parts of your body. The spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Since our brains control almost everything we do, a spinal cord injury is a very serious event in a person's life.
A spinal cord injury can be caused by either disease or injury to the vertebral column (the bones that surround and protect the spinal cord) or the spinal cord itself. At the site of the injury, the spinal column can be pinched, bruised, banged or completely severed. Some diseases that can result in an injury to your spinal cord include multiple sclerosis, polio, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and cerebral palsy.
How are spinal cord injuries classified?
Spinal Cord Injuries (SCI) are classified by types and levels. There are two types of spinal cord injuries: complete (no voluntary movement is possible below the level of injury) and incomplete (some voluntary movement is possible). An incomplete SCI usually means there is only partial damage to the spinal cord.
The level of SCI corresponds to where the injury physically took place. Generally speaking, the higher up the spinal cord the injury occurs, the greater the loss of function. These levels include a letter and a number. The letter represents the general region of the spinal cord that is affected and the number refers to the vertebrae. For example, a C3 injury means the injury occurred at the third cervical vertebra. Additional regions include T (thoracic), L (lumbar) and S (sacral).
Although two people may suffer from the same level and type of SCI, the similarities usually end there. Each person may have different functional capabilities, depending on the degree of injury. SCIs are extremely complicated and usually demand a team of medical professionals to help the person deal with the injury on both the physical and the emotional levels. Regardless of the program you choose for yourself or a loved one, early intervention is also a critical component that can help determine long-term progress after spinal cord injury.
Will I ever walk again?
This depends on your level of injury and degree of completeness. The lower your injury is and the more sensation/movement you have, the greater your chances are of regaining some mobility.
Is there a "cure" for this injury?
Right now there is no clear-cut medical cure for spinal cord injury. Administration of IV steroids at the time of the injury may prevent further damage to the nerves that is caused by the natural inflammation process following trauma. This can improve the long-term functional outcome. There is exciting research at several spinal cord centers throughout the country and abroad, which focus on ways to regenerate or reconnect nerve pathways.
Can I have sex?
We are all sexual humans with or without a disability. After a spinal cord injury, a person can continue to be sexually active and experience a satisfying intimate relationship. Your injury, however, may mean there is a change in how your body can respond. Good Shepherd's nurses and physicians can help you understand how your body works and how you can continue to enjoy intimacy.
Medications such as Viagra are used successfully with many men who experience impotence as a result of SCI. Men and women with SCI can become parents. SCI does not affect a female's ability to conceive but males may need the assistance of a fertility clinic to impregnate their partner.
Will I regain control of my bladder or bowels?
Incompleteness of injury, preserved movement and sensation in your buttocks may indicate that you can regain control of these functions. Diagnostic testing can give you more accurate answers.
How can I be more independent?
There are numerous adaptive resources and computer-assisted technologies that can enable you to perform activities independently. Creative problem solving and networking with peers and rehab care specialists can help you continuously improve function and enhance your quality of life.
Can I drive again?
Yes, unless you have a very high spinal cord injury (C4 and above). However, you need to complete a driver training program with an adaptive vehicle under the supervision of a special rehab driving instructor and pass the state license test. For information on Good Shepherd's driver training program, click here.
What things can I participate in at a wheelchair level?
People in wheelchairs can participate in many recreational sports including basketball, tennis, track, fishing, hunting, and golf. Therapeutic recreation specialists and occupational therapists can help you obtain or improvise adaptive devices designed for many activities. Many individuals with spinal cord injuries return to work or school.
What long-term medical follow-up is needed?
It is important for you to have urological assessment yearly to make sure your kidneys and bladder remain healthy and to safely manage urinary track infections. It is also important to check your skin daily to prevent breakdown and contact your rehab doctor if you begin to develop any sores.
A spinal cord injury can make you more prone to upper respiratory infection and pneumonia. Most family medical doctors or rehab doctors (physiatrists) will recommend flu shots and vaccine against pneumonia. Painful sensation or spasms can also cause distress.
Good Shepherd offers a spinal cord injury outpatient program whereby a physiatrist and rehabilitation team (rehab nurse, PT, OT, psychologist, care manager) assess your medical, functional, and psychosocial status as well as your equipment and avocational/vocational needs. Together, you and your rehab team will develop strategies designed to enhance your independence and facilitate your transition into vocational or avocational opportunities.
For more information on the Good Shepherd Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, contact us, call 610-776-3100 or Request an Appointment.