Spinal Cord Injury

  • Medical Author:
    Jason C. Eck, DO, MS

    Dr. Eck received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Catholic University of America in Biomedical Engineering, followed by a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Marquette University. Following this he worked as a research engineer conducting spine biomechanics research. He then attended medical school at University of Health Sciences. He is board eligible in orthopaedic surgery.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

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How Does Rehabilitation Help People Recover From Spinal Cord Injuries?

No two people will experience the same emotions after surviving a spinal cord injury, but almost everyone will feel frightened, anxious, or confused about what has happened. It's common for people to have very mixed feelings: relief that they are still alive, but disbelief at the nature of their disabilities.

Rehabilitation programs combine physical therapies with skill-building activities and counseling to provide social and emotional support. The education and active involvement of the newly injured person and his or her family and friends is crucial.

A rehabilitation team is usually led by a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation (called a physiatrist), and often includes social workers, physical and occupational therapists, recreational therapists, rehabilitation nurses, rehabilitation psychologists, vocational counselors, nutritionists, and other specialists. A case-worker or program manager coordinates care.

In the initial phase of rehabilitation, therapists emphasize regaining leg and arm strength since mobility and communication are the two most important areas of function. For some, mobility will only be possible with the assistance of devices such as a walker, leg braces, or a wheelchair. Communication skills, such as writing, typing, and using the telephone, may also require adaptive devices.

Physical therapy includes exercise programs geared toward muscle strengthening. Occupational therapy helps redevelop fine motor skills. Bladder and bowel management programs teach basic toileting routines, and patients also learn techniques for self-grooming. People acquire coping strategies for recurring episodes of spasticity, autonomic dysreflexia, and neurogenic pain.

Vocational rehabilitation begins with an assessment of basic work skills, current dexterity, and physical and cognitive capabilities to determine the likelihood for employment. A vocational rehabilitation specialist then identifies potential work places, determines the type of assistive equipment that will be needed, and helps arrange for a user-friendly workplace. For those whose disabilities prevent them from returning to the workplace, therapists focus on encouraging productivity through participation in activities that provide a sense of satisfaction and self-esteem. This could include educational classes, hobbies, memberships in special interest groups, and participation in family and community events.

Recreation therapy encourages patients to build on their abilities so that they can participate in recreational or athletic activities at their level of mobility. Engaging in recreational outlets and athletics helps those with spinal cord injuries achieve a more balanced and normal lifestyle and also provides opportunities for socialization and self-expression.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/4/2015
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