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Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury happens most often when the spinal cord experiences trauma. Commonly this trauma is due to traffic accidents, sports injuries, workplace incidents, or falls. Rarely spinal cord injuries can also be caused by medical conditions such as polio, spina bifida, MS, tumors, or other conditions.

The spinal cord is injured when it is partially or completely severed, or crushed. This differentiates a spinal cord injury from a broken back or neck, as a broken spine impacts the vertebrae rather than the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves running from the base of the brain down the back, and is protected by the vertebrae that make up the spine. The purpose of the spinal cord is to send messages to and from the nerves and the brain. It controls movement and sensation, such as temperature, pain, and pressure. When the spinal cord is damaged, the brain and nerves are no longer able to communicate, resulting in loss of movement and function.

Spinal cord injuries are classified by location and severity.

  • Quadriplegia: damage to the neck region that causes loss of function and sensory impairment to the arms and legs.
  • Paraplegia: damage to the middle or lower back that causes the loss of function and sensory impairment to lower limbs.
  • Complete: complete paralysis below the injury, with full absence of sensation and motor function.
  • Incomplete: partial paralysis below the injury, with some loss of sensation and motor function.

Effects of a spinal cord injury include:

  • Partial or complete loss of sensation below injury (temperature, pressure, pain, etc.)
  • Partial or complete loss of mobility of limbs below injury
  • Problems with bowel or bladder function
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Neuropathic pain
  • Muscle wasting and weakness
  • Spasticity (increased tightness and stiffness of muscles)

If the nerve damage is not too severe, the nerves may be able to be regenerated and some or all limb function may return.

Why Choose Physical Therapy?

Every spine injury is different. No matter the type or severity of the injury, a physiotherapist can help. A physiotherapist can assess your injury and develop strategies to make the most of your function and movement. Continued physiotherapy can maintain or even improve the impact of a spinal cord injury.

  • Personalization: A physiotherapist can assess your injury and make a plan that fits your needs.
  • Mental Health: Energy levels, mood, and quality of sleep can be improved with physical therapy.
  • Flexibility: Stretching improves your range of motion and decreases spasticity.
  • Strength: Resistance training improves your muscle strength and bone density, maintaining your ability to perform daily activities.
  • Cardio: Raising your heart rate improves aerobic fitness, decreases the risk of disease, improves blood circulation and ability to breathe.
  • Mobility Aid Use: A physiotherapist can teach you how to safely and effectively use mobility aids to improve your quality of life.
  • Prevent Future Problems: Physiotherapy can teach you exercises that will keep you healthy and prevent future problems.
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Students from the School of Physiotherapy created a printable info sheet on this topic in partnership with Spinal Cord Injury Saskatchewan Inc. and the Saskatchewan Physiotherapy Association. Click here to download the info sheet.