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Spinal cord injury (SCI)

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Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is damage to the spinal cord that results in a loss of function such as mobility or feeling. A diagnosis of spinal cord injury can be devastating.

Accidents - motor vehicle accidents, falls and sports injuries - and acts of violence cause most injuries to the spinal cord. The injury interferes with your brain's ability to communicate through your nervous system with other parts of your body.


Following this advice may reduce your risk of a spinal cord injury:

  • Drive safely. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of spinal cord injuries. Wear a seat belt every time you drive. Make sure that your children wear a seat belt or, if they're very young, use a child safety seat. Don't drive while intoxicated.

  • Be safe with firearms. Lock up firearms and ammunition in a safe place to prevent accidental discharge of weapons. Store guns and ammunition separately.

  • Prevent falls. Use a stool or stepladder to reach objects in high places. Add handrails along stairways. Place nonslip mats on your bathroom and shower floor. For young children, use safety gates to block stairs and consider installing window guards.

  • Take precautions when playing sports. Always wear recommended safety gear. Avoid headfirst moves, such as diving into shallow water, spear tackling in football, sliding headfirst in baseball and skating headfirst into the boards in ice hockey. Use a spotter in gymnastics.

Coping skills

An accident that results in paralysis is a life-changing event, whether you've lost movement in your legs and lower body or all four extremities. Recovery from such an event takes time, but many people who are paralyzed move on to lead productive and fulfilling lives. The will to live in humans is amazingly strong, and the creativity with which many affected people lead their lives is great. It's essential to stay motivated and get the support you need.


If you're newly injured, you and your family will likely experience a period of mourning and grief that's similar to the period after the death of a loved one. Although the grieving process is different for everyone, it's common to experience denial or disbelief, then sadness, anger, bargaining, and, finally, acceptance. However, it may take up to a year to accept the reality of your disability.

The grieving process is a common, healthy part of your recovery. It's natural — and important — to grieve the loss of your old "normal" self. But it's also necessary to set new goals and find a way to move forward with your life.

Taking control

One of the best ways to regain control of your life is to educate yourself about your injury and your options for reclaiming an independent life. A wide range of driving equipment and vehicle modifications is on the market today. The same is true of home modification products. Ramps, wider doors, special sinks, grab bars and easy-to-turn doorknobs make it possible for you to assert your autonomy.

Because the costs of a spinal cord injury can be overwhelming, you may want to find out if you are eligible for economic assistance or support services from the state or federal government or from charitable organizations. Your rehabilitation team can help you identify resources in your area.

Talking about your disability

Your friends and family may respond to your disability in different ways. Some may be unfazed by your injury. Others may be uncomfortable and unsure if they are saying or doing the "right" thing. And some may have a difficult time adjusting to the change. They may grieve for the loss of the way your life was before the accident. They may be scared about the financial challenges and stress that are sure to arise. Or they may be nervous about their new role as caregiver.

Educating people about your disability is often the best solution. Children are naturally curious and sometimes adjust rather quickly if their questions are answered in a clear, straightforward way. Adults can also benefit from learning the facts. Explain the effects of your injury and what your family and friends can do to help. At the same time, don't hesitate to tell friends and loved ones when they're helping too much. Although it may be uncomfortable at first, talking about your injury often strengthens your relationships with family and friends.

Dealing with intimacy

Many men and women with a spinal cord injury wonder if they can maintain a romantic, intimate relationship with a partner. The answer is yes.

However, people with a spinal cord injury often need to address physical and emotional changes that can affect sexuality. You may need medical treatments or medications to have sexual intercourse. In some cases, intercourse may not be possible and you and your partner may need to explore and experiment with different ways to be romantic and intimate. A professional counselor can help couples communicate their needs and feelings so that they are more comfortable talking about sex and discovering what is fulfilling for both of them.

Taking care of yourself

As you adjust to your disability, allow yourself time to rest and time to process your thoughts and feelings about your disability. This is also a good time to concentrate on eating a healthy diet and reducing stress.

Good nutrition will help you build enough strength to fully participate in daily activities. A balanced diet will also help you fight infections and maintain proper body weight. Plus, it will help maintain regular bladder and bowel functioning and assist in preventing pressure ulcers.

Looking ahead

A spinal cord injury has a very sudden impact on your life and the lives of those closest to you. When you first hear your diagnosis, you may start making a mental list of all of the things you can't do anymore. However, as you learn more about your injury and your treatment options, you may be surprised at all of the things you can do.

Thanks to new technologies, treatments and devices, people with a spinal cord injury play basketball and participate in track meets. They paint and take photographs. They get married, raise children and have rewarding jobs.

Today, advances in stem cell research and nerve cell regeneration give hope for a greater recovery for people with a spinal cord injury. In addition, new medications such as 4-aminopyridine (Fampridine-SR) could be available in the next few years for people with long-standing spinal cord injuries. Although the final results from large-scale research studies of 4-aminopyridine aren't yet available, some early studies suggest that this medication can improve strength, spasticity, sexual function, and bladder and bowel function after spinal cord injury.

The reality of these new treatments is still a long way off. But you can remain hopeful about the future of spinal cord research, while living your life to the fullest today.


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Last Modified : 03/15/08 02:18 AM