If you have sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI), you may be challenged by a whole range of symptoms. Because the spinal cord is involved in transmitting vital signals to and from the brain, damage in this area may interrupt normal biological processes that we take for granted.
One of the more common and initially disturbing symptoms of a spinal cord injury is spasticity. It can affect as many as three-quarters of the individuals who have an SCI to varying degrees depending on the nature of their injury.
Sometimes called spastic paralysis, it’s also known by the longer name spasticity hypertonia. It is essentially when the body is unable to control muscle movements either generally or in specific areas of the body.
For example, the muscles in the legs might suddenly contract without warning creating jerking movements. When it affects areas like the rectum it can also cause loss of bowel control.
Spasticity can change the reflex action in response to a dangerous external stimuli such as heat by turning it into a muscle spasm. Another problem patients find is the tightening of a muscle which they then have difficulty relaxing.
Spasticity can be painful and can interrupt ability to function properly if it occurs regularly. It can, in some cases, cause breathing issues if the spasticity occurs around the chest area. An attack of spasticity at night will make it difficult to get to sleep. Other times it might hamper the individual when they are trying to eat.
In some cases spasticity will decline as time goes on, in others, it needs to be managed, either by using drugs such as Baclofen or through exercise treatment, depending on the severity.
The spinal cord is a complex series of nerves that transmit messages to and from the brain. Damage to this area or the connection to it means that control voluntary movement signal is interrupted or blocked. The spinal cord is not as efficient at creating its own signals compared to the brain.
This means that signals often lead to involuntary muscle contractions when we are least expecting them. In the case of spinal injury patients, the incorrect message is sent to the muscle to spasm which results in twitches, jerks and muscle tightening. This can be something that happens once in a while or at regular intervals, depending on the injury.
A whole range of different things trigger spasticity in SCI patients including simply stretching a leg, having a full bladder or even an irritation on the skin. While it can be very frustrating and sometimes frightening, spasticity is generally not harmful and can be managed effectively with a mix of drug therapy and exercise.
The problem that patients have with spasticity is that it is unpredictable. Spinal cord injuries with spasticity are fairly common so many sufferers have to cope with it in some form or another.
Tracking the spasticity can help as it may show whether anything triggers it specifically and can help the individual prevent it from reoccurring.. It will also help monitor whether the spasticity is getting worse or better.
The most common form of spasticity management is to use drugs such as Diazepam and Benzodiazepines. If the spasticity is affecting one particular area and is severe enough, pharmaceutical therapy can be administered by a pump and provide immediate relief on demand.
In more recent times, administering Botox to specifically affected areas has proved an effective treatment for some forms of spasticity, especially as each dose can work for up to three to six months at a time.
Physical therapy can also be used to reduce the power and impact of spasticity on the individual and usually works in conjunction with pharmaceutical solutions.
Physical therapy is an important part of spasticity management in the long-term and should help reduce symptoms even in the most severe cases. Important considerations such as posture and positioning while in a wheelchair or when asleep at night are also important factors.
Exercises should include stretching muscles and improving range of movement. Spastic paralysis can lead to the shortening or shrinkage of muscle groups because they are no longer used. Performing simple exercises will, therefore, help counteract this problem.
Spasticity is a common challenge for patients who have sustained a spinal cord injury. While it can subside over time, effective management is often needed in more severe, long-lasting cases. This can include a mix of medication and spasticity treatment exercises which combine to reduce the severity of future attacks.
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