Life After a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

September 03,2021 |
Woman in a wheelchair working.

Spinal cord injuries affect up to 17,500 people each year. They can leave you debilitated and require you to re-learn how to navigate through daily life. While spinal cord injuries can vary based on severity, location, and the potential for recovery, those first few months can be difficult and overwhelming. Your doctors will be reviewing what seems like endless information about your injury and how your life will be affected while your loved ones will be offering whatever support they can. While it’s essential that you listen to your doctor, it’s likely that you’ll want to review the information on your own again later. Here, we’ll help give you an overview of life after a spinal cord injury (SCI) to act as supplemental educational material throughout your journey.

What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are a type of injury that is classified by damages incurred to your spinal cord and/or associated nerves. Your spinal cord is comprised of millions of cells and nerves that are intricately bundled together to help your body communicate with your brain and vice versa. Spinal cord injuries cause disruptions to the signals passed between your body and your brain, therefore resulting in a range of mobility issues and problems with certain bodily functions. There are four primary classifications of spinal cord injuries—incomplete injury, complete injury, tetraplegia (quadriplegia), and paraplegia. These classifications determine the severity of the injury and intensity of associated problems or loss of motor function.

What Happens Following a Spinal Cord Injury?

What happens following a spinal cord injury first depends on the classification of the injury. Spinal cord injuries can cause partial loss of movement and control (incomplete injury) or full loss of movement and control (complete injury). Complete injuries either fully compress the spinal cord or completely sever it, which makes the chance of making a full recovery unlikely. Incomplete injuries, however, offer hope for recovery, especially as your body begins to heal and swelling decreases. Regardless of if you have a complete injury or an incomplete injury, physical therapy has been shown to make a difference, so it’s worth putting in the effort.

Spinal cord injuries can also affect people from the neck down (quadriplegia) or from the chest/waist down (paraplegia). The degree to which you experience paralysis will depend on where the injury is located along the spine. Typically, as injuries move down the spine, they become less likely to permanently restrict your movements.  

Navigating Life After a Spinal Cord Injury

About 245,000 to 353,000 Americans are currently living with spinal cord injuries. While rare, they can and do happen, especially following severe motor vehicle accidents, falls, or other injuries. If you encounter a spinal cord injury, it’s important to understand some of the changes that will follow. Life after a spinal cord injury will require adjustments, but it is possible to live a happy life, develop new hobbies, and maintain meaningful relationships. To start, here are some things that you will need to work on with your doctor.

Managing Incontinence Issues

Many people with spinal cord injuries develop urinary incontinence in some degree. This is because continence relies on a conscious desire to use the bathroom followed by the voluntary control of the bladder muscles. Those suffering from spinal cord injuries may lose this control depending on the location and severity of their injury. To manage incontinence issues, your urologist may recommend incontinence support products such as intermittent catheterization or absorbent padding.

Neurogenic Bladder

Since your urinary system relies on nerves that send and receive messages from the bladder to/from the brain via the spinal cord, it’s understandable that those with a SCI will have urologic problems. Neurogenic bladder is a condition where the nerves that tell the bladder to contract or release don’t work properly. Symptoms can vary in severity and treatment often includes clean intermittent catheterization to avoid accidents.

Increased Prevalence of Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections are the most common urologic complications for people suffering from a spinal cord injury. If a UTI goes undiagnosed, it can lead to sepsis, which is the leading cause of death in people with a SCI. Speak with your urologist about managing your risk for infection and creating prompt treatment plans.

Deterioration of Renal Function

Renal insufficiency is another significant urologic complication in people with spinal cord injuries. This is a complication of neurogenic bladder, where the urinary tract is distressed and therefore increases the risk of renal insufficiency. Intermittent self-catheterization can help to reduce your risk for problems with renal function. If you’re unable to perform catheterization, your urologist may recommend certain blocking agents to help reduce obstructions and other problems.

Kidney Stones

Kidney stones, or urinary calculi, are a complication of neurogenic bladder where the urine is supersaturated, and crystals begin to form. This can be painful to pass and lead to further infections or complications. There are ways for you to decrease your risk of kidney stones and if they form, suggestions as to how to pass your kidney stones at home. If the pain is too much, talk to your doctor about further treatment options.

Increased Risk of Bladder Cancer

The risk of bladder cancer increases when you have a spinal cord injury. In fact, bladder cancer is roughly 16 to 28 times higher in those with a spinal cord injury than the general population. Take care of yourself and avoid engaging in behaviors that increase your risk of bladder cancer—especially smoking. For more preventative measures and how to keep your bladder healthy with a spinal cord injury, talk to your doctor.

A majority of people who suffer from a spinal cord injury will go on to suffer from long-term urologic challenges. To make sure that you’re staying healthy, see your urologist regularly and do what you can to prioritize your urologic health. Common treatment or preventative options include intermittent catheterization, indwelling catheters, reflex voiding, the crede maneuver, surgery, and the use of certain pharmaceuticals.

How to Improve Quality of Life After a Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injuries often come unexpectedly and cause traumatic changes to how you live your life. As you continue to adapt to new challenges and progress through your recovery, there are a few things that you can do to further improve your quality of life after a spinal cord injury.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy has been shown to work on many survivors of spinal cord injuries. At first, it’s going to be difficult and seemingly impossible, but over time you will learn how even the smallest changes in movement can increase your quality of life.

Create Goals

One of the best ways to keep your mental health strong is to set daily goals for yourself. Keep them small and attainable. You should also set monthly and yearly goals to help give you motivation to work towards something. These goals don’t have to be big, but they’re a great way to help mark your progress and improve your independence.

Find New Hobbies

There are plenty of hobbies available for those who are suffering from spinal cord injuries. While they might not be as physical as what you once enjoyed, keeping your mind occupied is just as important. Meditation and deep breathing exercises can be done by everyone and have undeniable benefits to those who practice them. You can also read or listen to audiobooks, discover new information through podcasts, or, depending on your injury, take up painting, crafting, archery, and more.

Join a Support Group

Feeling supported and understood is essential to your longevity. While you might not think that you want to be around others, joining a support group is a great way for you to change your outlook, make new friends, and talk about your struggles in an understanding environment.

Spinal cord injuries can be unpredictable. There are cases of individuals who are affected for the rest of their lives and there are others that spontaneously return to walking. The important thing to remember is that the more optimistic your mindset is and the more you embrace a healthy lifestyle paired with hard work, the better your outcome will be. That isn’t to say that you’re guaranteed anything, but it’s very rare for someone who has given up on progress to make tremendous changes in recovery. Make the effort to surround yourself with friends and family and do what you can to protect your mental health.

If you or a loved one has suffered a spinal cord injury, getting the proper support, educational materials, and supplies is essential to a healthy, happy life. To help, Byram Healthcare offers a wide range of urology supplies such as catheters and incontinence care. Browse our products today and have them discreetly delivered at your door—most orders ship within 2-3 days.