Living With a Spinal Cord Injury

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This article was last updated on 2/18/2009.
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What is a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury is damage to the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a soft bundle of nerves that extends from the base of the brain to the lower back. It runs through the spinal canalClick here to see an illustration., a tunnel formed by holes in the bones of the spine. The bony spine helps protect the spinal cord. See pictures of the spineClick here to see an illustration. and the spinal cordClick here to see an illustration..

The spinal cord carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. These messages allow you to move and to feel touch, among other things. A spinal cord injury stops the flow of messages below the site of the injury. The closer the injury is to the brain, the more of the body is affected.

  • Injury to the middle of the back usually affects the legs (paraplegia).
  • Injury to the neck can affect the arms, chest, and legs (quadriplegia).

A spinal cord injury may be complete or incomplete. A person with a complete injury does not have any feeling or movement below the level of the injury. In an incomplete injury, the person still has some feeling or movement in the affected area.

What causes a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury usually happens because of a sudden severe blow to the spine. Often this is the result of a car accident, fall, gunshot, or sporting accident. Sometimes the spinal cord is damaged by infection or spinal stenosis, or by a birth defect, such as spina bifida.

What happens after a spinal cord injury?

At the hospital, treatment starts right away to prevent more damage to the spine and spinal cord. Steps are taken to get your blood pressure stable and help you breathe. You may get a steroid medicine to reduce swelling of the spinal cord. A number of tests are done. These include X-ray of the spine, CT scan, MRI, and ultrasound of the kidneys. These tests are repeated over time to check how you are doing.

A few days after the injury, you will be tested to see how you respond to pinpricks and light touch all over your body. The doctor will ask you to move different parts of your body and test the strength of your muscles. These tests help the doctor know how severe the injury is and how likely it is that you could get back some feeling and movement. Most recovery occurs in the first 6 months.

As soon as you are stable, rehabilitation (rehab) starts. The goal of rehab is to help prepare you for life after rehab and help you be as independent as possible. What happens in rehab depends on your level of injury. The rehab team will help you to learn how to:

  • Prevent problems like pressure sores and know when you need to call a doctor.
  • Exercise to keep your muscles strong and flexible.
  • Eat a balanced diet to help you stay healthy and manage your weight.
  • Learn to do things that most people do without thinking, such as managing your bladder and bowel.
  • Use a wheelchair or other devices so you can do things you enjoy.

There is a lot to learn, and it may seem overwhelming at times. But with practice and support, it will get easier.

What is life like with a spinal cord injury?

Having a spinal cord injury changes some things forever, but you can still have a full and rewarding life. A saying among people who have a spinal cord injury is, "Before your injury, you could do 10,000 things. Now you can do 9,000. So are you going to worry about the 1,000 things you can't do or focus on the 9,000 things you can do?"

After they adjust, many people with spinal cord injuries are able to work, drive, play sports, and have relationships and families. Your rehab team can provide the support, training, and resources to help you move toward new goals. It is up to you to make the most of what they have to offer.

Adapting to life with a spinal cord injury can be tough. You can expect to feel sad or angry at times or to grieve for your lost abilities. It is important to express these feelings so they don't keep you from moving ahead. Talk with family and friends, find a support group, or connect with others online. Talking to other people who have spinal cord injuries can be a big help.

It is hard to enjoy life if you have ongoing pain or depression. If you do, tell your doctor. There are medicines and other treatments that can help.

Caring for a person with a spinal cord injury can be both rewarding and difficult. If you help take care of someone with a spinal cord injury, don't forget to take care of yourself too. Find a local support group, and make time to do things you enjoy.

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Author: Shannon Erstad, MBA/MPHLast Updated: February 18, 2009
Medical Review: William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine
Nancy Greenwald, MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

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