Rehabilitation and recovery from spinal cord injuries

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Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are impossible to predict or entirely prevent, with the most common causes coming from accidents during everyday activities.

Key points:

  • Spinal cord injuries can occur from traumatic and non-traumatic incidents which are often unforeseen and unpredicted
  • A team of medical professionals will assist you in the recovery and rehabilitation stage
  • While there is no cure, researchers are continuously looking for new treatments and technologies to improve a spinal cord injury patient’s quality of life and mobility

The spinal cord runs from the brain to the base of the spine, acting as a means of communication for the brain and the body, and independently controls some tasks.

A damaged or severed spinal cord means you may not be able to use the limbs below the level of injury and where you damage your spinal cord will determine what level of immobility you will experience.

After a spinal cord injury, you will need to start recovering from the incident and undertake rehabilitation to improve your quality of life.

What can a SCI impact?

A damaged spinal cord can cause you to lose control of your muscles and prohibit sensory function, the control of the bladder and bowel, and sometimes respiratory problems.

Severe damage to your back can result in paraplegia, where you have full use of your arms and hands but control of the lower limbs is affected.

Severe damage in your neck can result in quadriplegia, where you lose control of your arms and hands as well as your legs.

Approximately 20,800 Australians are living with a SCI, the condition is most common in young adults and middle-aged adults, with men being significantly more likely to experience one than women.

SCIs have a lasting and significant impact on the lives of the injured person, their family and their friends.

People with an SCI require substantial support and assistance in daily activities, are unlikely to return to work and can suffer from poorer health and wellbeing.

There is currently no cure for SCI, but researchers are continuously investigating potential rehabilitation and therapy options to improve someone with a SCI’s quality of life.

Causes of SCI

Eighty-six cases (46 percent) of traumatic SCI cases in Australia were due to incidents with a vehicle and an unprotected user, such as motorcyclists, pedestrians, pedal cyclists and quad bikes.

Falls contributed to about a third of all traumatic SCI cases and seven percent were water-related caused by being dumped by a wave or diving/jumping into shallow water.

Non-traumatic events, like illnesses and disease, can also cause damage to the spine over a longer period of time, leading to a SCI.

The leading causes of non-traumatic SCIs in Australia are from tumours and degenerative disorders.

After a SCI incident

You may find yourself experiencing a number of debilitating health consequences such as chronic pain, and bladder and bowel dysfunction.

You may also lose some or a considerable amount of your mobility, which can lead to other health consequences like pressure sores, osteoporosis and poor circulation.

SCIs can have significant and lasting impacts on your physical and mental health and your family and friends.

It is important to give yourself adequate time to recover from a SCI incident and start rehabilitation to either regain some abilities or improve your quality of life.


After spending time in hospital following the incident that causes the SCI, you will often be transferred to a rehabilitation facility.

Rehabilitation and other treatment approaches for SCIs are available to help improve quality of life, improve your ability to undertake day-to-day activities and reduce the impact of secondary medical complications.

In the early stages of rehabilitation, the main focus will be on maintaining and improving your muscle function, developing your fine motor skills, and learning how to adapt to everyday life.

A team of medical professionals will work with you during your rehabilitation, this could include a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a rehabilitation nurse, a rehabilitation psychologist, a social worker, a dietitian, a recreation therapist, and a doctor who specialises in physical medicine or SCIs.

You will be taught new skills and how to use equipment and technologies that can help you live on your own as much as possible.

Your medical team will also watch for secondary medical complications, which are common for SCI patients, including respiratory complications, cardiovascular complications, urinary and bowel complications, spasticity, pain syndromes, pressure ulcers, osteoporosis and bone fractures.

Prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of chronic secondary complications in people with SCI is critical for reducing your likelihood of secondary medical complications, improving survival, community participation and health-related quality of life.


You may need to stabilise or align your spine with a soft neck collar and various braces for a period of time, depending on your situation.

Surgery is often necessary to stabilise the spine, remove fragments of bones, foreign objects, herniated disks or fractured vertebrae that may be impacting your spine.

There are also a range of medications that may be prescribed to you to manage secondary medical complications, including medications to control pain and muscle spasticity, improve bladder control, bowel control and sexual functioning.

Caring for your mental health

You will likely not only experience physical issues to manage after a SCI incident, you may need to treat your mental health as well.

Sudden injuries, such as traumatic SCIs, can impact your mental health and wellbeing.

Beyond Blue said up to 40 percent of people who suffer a traumatic SCI are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and up to 30 percent are at risk of experiencing depression.

This is more than double the average rate of PTSD after a sudden injury, where 10 – 20 percent of people with a serious injury will develop PTSD within a year of the trauma occurring.

Chronic pain is also a key contributor to mental illnesses such as depression in people with SCIs.

These impacts are also felt by families, who experience increased stress from the emotional consequences of seeing a loved one seriously injured, increased financial impact, and additional caring responsibilities.

It is important that you seek mental health treatment if you are experiencing any trauma or have developed mental health symptoms.

New technologies

There are many medical and assistive devices that can help people with a spinal cord injury become more independent and more mobile. These include:

  • Modern wheelchairs and electric wheelchairs
  • Computer adaptations such as key guards and voice recognition
  • Electronic aids to daily living including voice-controlled or computer-based remotes for electronic devices
  • Electrical stimulation devices, often called functional electrical stimulation systems, use electrical stimulators to control arm and leg muscles to allow people with SCIs to stand, walk, reach and grip

For a list of support providers or rehabilitation services to assist you with a SCI, visit the Disability Support Guide Therapists and Specialists page.

What type of rehabilitation did you undertake after a SCI incident? Let us know in the comments below.

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