Life after a spinal cord injury

Life After a Spinal Cord Injury

A serious spinal cord injury (SCI) can present many considerable challenges for the individual affected. The type and severity of an SCI can depend on a wide range of factors. The most important is the area of the spine that is damaged and how quickly medical attention is received.   

According to spinal cord injury statistics, it’s estimated that between 250,000 and 500,000 people throughout the world sustain this type of injury each year. Around 12,500 SCIs are recorded in the USA, and currently 265,000 are living with a spinal cord injury in the United States. Individuals with a serious spinal cord injury may also have to deal with a number of other issues as a result of their condition, including mental health problems and secondary health complications.

These days there is usually a lot of support and medical help available to those with a spinal cord injury, compared to what several decades ago, when far less was understood about this type of injury.

Early intervention and proper medical intervention along with post-injury support can make a huge difference to individuals with an SCI, and as a result, the outlook has never been better.

Types of spinal cord injury

The area and extent of injury will determine the seriousness of a spinal cord injury.

Cervical spinal cord injuries (C1 – C7) near the neck and shoulders are more severe than those lower down. Once the spinal cord is damaged or cut, it can affect everything below the injury. This not only means loss of sensation and movement, it may also impact on autonomic responses such as breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure.

Anatomy of the Spine
Anatomy of the Spine

The other factor that plays a large role in spinal cord injuries is whether the damage is complete or incomplete. The former can lead to wide ranging and significant disabilities such as paraplegia, while the latter can often, but not always, be improved by rehabilitation.

Physical limitation and changes that can be expected

With any serious spinal cord injury there are going to be physical limitations. Again, this will vary depending on the severity of the damage sustained.

A milder injury might leave an individual dealing with pain and conditions such as spasticity where muscles contract rapidly. More severe SCIs can mean that the patient is permanently paralysed below the area where the injury has occurred.

Severe spinal injuries generally come with added health problems. These include being unable to control blood pressure, difficulty breathing and problems with bowel or bladder control. There may be tingling sensations and phantom pain and trouble with libido.

Mental health considerations

One of the key challenges that an individual with a spinal cord injury may face is how to maintain good mental health as they recover. Depression and anxiety are unfortunately by-products of this kind of a long-term injury and overcoming these is vital if someone is to enjoy the quality of life they deserve.

According to MSKTC, a lot is going to depend on the specific personality and how they cope with the day to day changes that accompany a spinal cord injury. The people who do tend to cope better with the mental health challenges tend to have a mechanism in place and ‘view their injury as a challenge’.

Relationships and SCIs

The dynamics of any personal relationship may change when an individual has a spinal cord injury. For some, there can be a positive element where friends and family and loved ones become closer. For others, the pressure of providing care and supporting someone with an SCI can be more difficult and it can take time to adjust.

The individual living with a spinal cord injury may have mental health issues and have trouble coming to terms with their condition. They might be angry or depressed. The impact on intimate contact between two partners can also be tremendously frustrating but is something that can be overcome with the right support.

Quality of life after a spinal cord injury

Quality of life depends on a number of factors, most importantly the seriousness of the injury. Being paralysed from the neck down is going to present more issues than having reduced mobility but still being able to move around without the help of a walking stick.

Quality of life can also be determined how a person plans for the future or the support they get to continue to do the normal, everyday activities most of us take for granted.

Making adjustments

Man learning to drive following a spinal cord injury
Vehicles can be modified to allow individuals with an SCI to continue to drive

All permanent spinal cord injury patients have to adjust the way they live. For some, this could be learning to cope with using a wheelchair, learning a new way to drive or even getting used to being fed by another person. The good news is that technology has been making a huge difference in this area and spinal cord injury treatment options are also improving all the time.

Many have to cope with major adjustments to their lives, others have smaller challenges to deal with. The truth is that humans can be pretty ingenious in the ways they tackle issues that face them.

Resources for SCI patients

Individuals with spinal cord injuries shouldn’t feel isolated. There are a number of different support groups out there which not only publish the latest research relating to this type of injury, but also offer brilliant advice on how to overcome various challenges that may be faced.

In the US, there are many support communities including The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and Inspired, the Spinal Cord Injury Support Community.

Sustaining a serious spinal cord injury will present many challenges. However, finding the right support is now easier than ever, not least because of the internet.