Spinal cord injuries can be life-changing injuries for many people. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, around 17,000 spinal cord injuries occur each year in the United States. That means each year, 17,000 people have to adjust to a new way of living, to come to terms with their injury, and to adjust to the new support and care that family members or caretakers are responsible for providing.
During this time, many questions will come across the person’s mind as they navigate themselves through this journey. One question, however, seems to be pressing at the forefront: Will I ever be able to recover from this? The answer to this question depends on many factors; but the most important factor is the severity of the person’s injury.
What is the possible recovery process for a spinal cord injury?
The recovery process for a spinal cord injury is contingent upon the severity of the person’s injury. Spinal cord injuries can fall into two categories: complete and incomplete. With a complete injury, the injury is so severe that there is little to no chance of recovery. With an incomplete injury, on the other hand, the brain is still capable of sending signals to other parts of the body, including the spinal cord that is damaged; this means that there is a potential chance of recovery.
To determine which type of injury the patient has, the doctor will use the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) grading scale to determine the severity of the injury. This scale ranks the injury from ASIA A to ASIA E, with ASIA A signifying a complete injury and ASIA E signifying that the patient’s sensory or muscle function is not impacted by his or her injury. Once the patient’s injury has been determined, the road to recovery can begin.
What is the first stage of recovery for an SCI?
The first stage of recovery starts immediately once the patient enters the hospital. This stage involves spending time in a critical care department and, depending on the team of health care providers’ recommendation, surgery.
The team will first check that the patient’s airways are clear and that the heart is beating normally. Next, the patient’s movement and whether or not he or she can feel any sensation in their legs will be tested. The patient will also be given a cervical collar, or brace, to help keep the spine stable. Medical imaging such as MRIs and CT scans may take place to examine any further damage to the spine. For the next few days, the team’s main objective is to help limit the damage and reduce the risk of complications for the patient. Once the initial treatment is completed, the team will arrange long-term care on a case-by-case basis.
What is the second stage of recovery for an SCI?
The second stage of recovery takes place outside of the hospital and focuses more on rehabilitation for the patient. The patient may be required to complete physical or occupational therapy, as well as counseling. During this stage, the patient will need to live in a subacute rehabilitation facility where he or she will receive up to three hours of rehabilitation each day.
For the first year, the doctor will recommend regular checkups for the patient. It is likely that rehabilitation and care will continue throughout the years. In some cases, patients are able to recover some bodily function up to 18 months after the injury. A smaller number of people are even able to regain function years after the injury.
What is involved with long-term treatment and management of a spinal cord injury?
Similar to the type of recovery a patient receives, the long-term treatment that a patient will receive is contingent upon the severity of the injury and the location of the injury. In most cases, patients are prescribed various forms of therapy from their doctors to assist with rehabilitation. Doctors will also focus on preventing and treating any secondary health conditions that the patient may have.
It is very common for patients with spinal cord injuries to acquire secondary health conditions. Some of these secondary conditions include pressure ulcers, muscle spasms, urinary tract infections, chronic pain, respiratory infections such as pneumonia, deep vein thrombosis and autonomic dysreflexia.
Mental and emotional issues associated with a spinal cord injury
The treatment stage is also a great stage for doctors to deal with any mental or emotional issues the patient is experiencing due to his or her injury. Some patients may experience issues with their mental health as a result of their injury. Studies have shown that at least 20 to 30 percent of patients with spinal cord injuries begin to show some signs of depression. Doctors can assist with this issue by recommending emotional counseling or psychotherapy for their clients.
Support for patients with spinal cord injuries
Patients with spinal cord injuries must adjust to the fact that they will need support for the rest of their lives. Regular, everyday tasks such as washing and dressing will have to be done with the assistance of a caretaker. Fortunately, for many patients, support does not end once they have exited the hospital. Doctors and nurses will provide immediate support to the patient by connecting them with a medical team.
Different therapists will also be there for the patient to assist with any emotional or mental health concerns. Last but not least, family members are there for the patient to provide other sources of support, emotional or physical. Some patients may also have access to caretakers, who can assist them with their everyday needs.
Simply put, recovery for a spinal cord injury depends on the severity of the injury. Patients with spinal cord injuries are at greater risk within the first year. Because of this, many doctors recommend regular checkups for the first year. While it is possible that some people recover some function up to 18 months after the injury, many people will experience a permanent loss of function that requires long-term care.