What is occupational therapy?

Occupational Therapy Following a Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury is a life-changing event for the majority of individuals who sustain one, causing impairment of mobility and potentially many other issues.

The good news is that there is large range of therapies that can be employed to help people adjust and improve their quality of life following a spinal cord injury.

One such therapy is known as occupational therapy. Practitioners are trained professionals, aiding people with various health conditions by using a variety of resources to help them live their lives to the full.

What is occupational therapy?

The role of the occupational therapist is to assist someone to overcome the medical, physical and mental health challenges they face. For someone with mobility issues, for example, therapy might include learning how to dress or wash themselves. It might also involve finding solutions such as the right wheelchair or a range of assistive technology to make life easier.

It’s important, particularly when it comes to spinal cord injuries, that the occupational therapist is brought into the rehabilitation and recovery process as soon as possible. These services play a vital and positive role in helping someone cope and improve their quality of life following a serious injury to the spine.

At its heart, occupational therapy is all about giving an individual the tools they need, educating and supporting them so that they are more independent and can take control over their own recovery. Each individual is different and the therapist will have to assess their needs in order to provide the right solutions.

The role of occupational therapy in individuals with spinal cord injuries

Spinal cord injury patient benefiting from occupational therpay

Spinal cord injuries present specific challenges when it comes to occupational therapy. There are many areas that an individual and their therapist will need to overcome, including daily living.

There are countless simple skills that we employ unconsciously and take for granted during every day. Individuals with spinal cord injuries have to relearn or find new ways of doing many of these things. That can include simple acts such as dressing and washing, feeding themselves or performing simple household chores.

The act of getting in and out of bed can be extremely challenging for some SCI patients. An occupational therapist will help source the right bed and equipment, for example, as well as train the individual to use it all. Learning to sit properly in a wheelchair and providing more support for the body is another area where a therapist can provide assistance.

The work of the occupational therapist impacts on almost every aspect of life. It might be something simple such as sourcing an adapted smartphone that the patient can use. It could be as challenging as helping them get back to work or take part in community activities or sports following a severe injury.

Setting a number of occupational therapy goals is essential as an ongoing process and it works best when patient and therapist build a close relationship.

Benefits of occupational therapy following a spinal cord injury

The first stages of a spinal cord injury can be traumatic and frightening. Not only does the individual have to come to terms with major changes in their body, but also how this is going to impact the rest of their life.

The reason that occupational therapists are introduced as soon as possible is that they provide an immediate link to a more positive future. Yes, there are challenges to overcome, but the therapist can help the individual explore all the possibilities.

Spinal cord injury occupational therapy activities

Spinal cord injury patient during occupational therapy

The prospect of living well with a spinal cord injury requires committing to healthy routines and understanding the resources and support that is available. The occupational therapist is there to help in a variety of ways, including:

  • Assessing and identifying those areas that are important to the SCI patient.
  • Find solutions so that the patient gets what they need.
  • Teaching the patient to perform simple daily tasks such as getting up, washing and dressing.
  • Optimising use of equipment such as wheelchairs and ensure correct posture.
  • Teaching the individual to use various assistive technologies that help with daily living.
  • Helping to support individuals to develop sexual relations or maintain intimate relationships.
  • Helping individuals take a problem-solving and more positive approach to their condition.
  • Empower the individual so that they are more independent.
  • Teaching skills that help the individual manage their condition, for example, regularly inspecting their skin or learning healthy cooking techniques.


Rehabilitation techniques, such as those employed within occupational therapy, can be an extremely effective part of an individual’s recovery following a spinal cord injury.

The early intervention of an occupational therapist is vital in this process and can make a huge difference to long-term health, but is especially important in the early stages when someone is coming to terms with their disability.