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Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation: How Does A Spinal Cord Injury Affect Overall Mobility and Function?

Spinal cord injury patient standing in the Ekso Bionics Exoskeleton.

Your spinal cord is the pathway for messages between your brain and every part of your body. Electrical signals pass at blinding speed down this bundle of nerves as your brain commands everything from the twitch of a finger to the beating of your heart.

Just as when a power cord is cut and the electricity stops flowing, when the spinal cord is damaged, electrical messages from your brain have trouble communicating with your body. Depending on the nature of your spinal cord injury (SCI), sometimes the messages are limited or slowed, and sometimes they’re completely blocked. This lack of communication between your brain and body may be permanent or may improve over time with rehabilitation.

How a spinal cord injury affects your body

A spinal cord injury not only damages the nerves in the spinal cord but also the surrounding tissue and bones. How much function and mobility are impacted depends upon the location of the injury on your spine and its severity.

A spinal cord injury has the greatest impact on:

  • Heart rate
  • Breathing
  • Reflexes
  • Muscle movement
  • Motor Skills
  • Metabolism
  • Sensation
  • Elimination (intestinal and bladder function)
  • Sexuality

According to Taylor Furry, PT, DPT, at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, “The most common cause of spinal cord injuries is trauma, such as motor vehicle accidents or falls. In our population at Good Shepherd, it’s most prevalent in falls and accidents. But there are also non-traumatic spinal cord injuries that occur from a lack of oxygen during surgery or various diseases, such as those acquired at birth or later in life like cancer.

Unfortunately, sometimes a spinal cord injury isn’t immediately obvious. It’s only after a patient experiences symptoms like weakness or a loss of sensation in their arms or legs, difficulty breathing, intense pain or stinging sensations, loss of bladder or bowel control, difficulty breathing or other symptoms, that the injury is diagnosed. Once diagnosed, a treatment plan including rehabilitation is recommended by the healthcare team to help restore as much function as possible.

How a spinal cord injury affects mobility and function

It’s important to know that only the muscles and nerves (and hence the body parts) below the damaged part of the spine are impacted by an SCI. Cervical injuries (the neck area) have the potential to impact almost the entire body. Damage that occurs in the lumbar region (the lower back) will only affect nerves and muscles in the hips, legs, and feet.

Spinal cord injuries are of two types:

A complete spinal cord injury does not necessarily mean that your spinal cord is severed, just that all communication is blocked. All feeling (sensory) and all motor function (the ability to control movement) is lost. This causes paralysis on both sides of the body below the level of the injury. A complete injury may cause quadriplegia (loss of movement in all four limbs) or paraplegia (paralysis in the lower half of the body).

An incomplete spinal cord injury allows at least some communication to still occur between your brain and body. Incomplete injuries might result from the spinal cord being bruised, crushed or stretched, allowing some motor function and/or sensory function on at least one side of the body. An incomplete SCI has many grades: It can be so mild that there is barely a sign that anything happened at all, or so severe that it has almost the same effect as a complete SCI, except perhaps for some areas that still have sensation. Usually, the nerve injury and paralysis fall somewhere in between.

There are different types of paralysis depending on the nature of your SCI:

  • If you’re diagnosed as quadriplegic, also known as tetraplegic, your limbs, trunk, and pelvic organs are affected.
  • If you’re diagnosed as paraplegic, your trunk, legs and pelvic organs are affected, but not your arms.

It’s important to begin rehabilitation as soon as possible

The sooner rehabilitation begins after a spinal cord injury, the better the chances are of recovering muscle function. This is especially true of walking. There is almost always hope of recovering at least some function after an SCI. And if you’re seeing improvement during therapy, there’s a good chance you’ll see even more.

Lindsey Fisher, PT, DPT, of Good Shepherd’s outpatient Hyland Center for Health & Technology explains why starting rehabilitation as early as possible is critical to recovering function:

“In therapy, we utilize high intensity and repetition in gait training and other functional activities to promote neuroplasticity, the rewiring of the nervous system,” says Fisher. “The potential for this rewiring is greater in the acute stages after injury, however, we continue to see these neuroplastic changes and functional improvements even in the later, more chronic stages.”

“Just as everyone has a different mechanism of injury, everyone’s rehabilitation journey is different”, says Taylor Furry, PT, DPT, of Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital. “The start of the journey usually is inpatient rehabilitation where we work on gaining back enough functional level in order for you to return home with support from family, friends and other health-care professionals,” says Furry. “But the journey doesn’t stop there. It continues for months and years beyond your date of injury, depending on its severity.”

At Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, our goal is to restore patients with spinal cord injuries to their highest potential. Our patients receive care from a team of specialists, including physical, occupational, speech, recreational and respiratory therapists, rehabilitation nurses, neuropsychologists and physiatrists who specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation. We offer inpatient, outpatient and home health services for SCI patients.

“Our services support patients with both acute and chronic SCI,” says Fisher. “We have supervised fitness services and support groups available to patients so that even when they have ‘graduated’ from therapy, we are still here to support them. We also offer a robust therapy follow-up program to ensure patients have maintained their goals and to identify and address changing needs as patients age or take on new goals and challenges in life.”

If you would like to learn more about our spinal cord injury rehabilitation program and the services offered at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, please call 1-888-44-REHAB.