Recovering From Spinal Cord Injuries

Physical therapy treatment has a focus on muscle strengthening.

Spinal cord injuries remain a relatively rare occurrence in the U.S. with approximately 12,000 new cases each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCIS) in Birmingham, Ala.fotolia_3315897

It’s estimated 270,000 people in the U.S. have spinal cord injuries. Since 2005, the average age at injury is 41 years and about 80 percent of all spinal cord injuries occur in men, according to the NSCIS.

What is the spinal cord?

The spinal cord is the tight bundle of neural cells and nerve pathways that extend from the base of the brain to the lower back. A spinal cord injury can effect breathing, circulation throughout the body, spasticity and muscle tone, pressure sores, pain, sexual function and can often lead to depression.

Injury can occur at any level of the spinal cord and the severity of the injury will determine body function afterwards and what physical therapy program will be appropriate.


A study since 2005 by the NSCIS of the causes of spinal cord injuries includes:

—Vehicular, 39 percent;

—Falls, 28 percent;

—Violence, 15 percent;

—Sports, 8 percent;

—Other or unknown, 10 percent.

Treatment plans

While damage to the spinal cord cannot be reversed, researchers are continually studying and testing new treatments to include prostheses and medications that may promote nerve cell regeneration or improve the function of the nerves that remain after a spinal cord injury, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Physical therapists are instrumental in helping spinal cord patients make the best decisions to aid in their recovery and post-injury lifestyle.

Treatment initially includes education on the effects of the injury and limiting complications. It will also include an emphasis on regaining communication skills and strength in the arms and legs. Most of the physical therapy will be geared toward muscle strengthening.

During the initial stages of rehabilitation, therapists usually emphasize maintenance and strengthening of existing muscle function, redeveloping fine motor skills and learning adaptive techniques to accomplish day-to-day tasks.

Learning new skills

Victims of spinal cord injuries can be taught new skills and learn how to use assistive devices to resume hobbies, participate in social and fitness activities and return to school or work. The therapy – physical and occupational – can help a patient redevelop fine motor skills, bowel and bladder management and generally coping with the aftermath of a spinal cord injury.

Devices to help spinal cord injury victims regain their independence include wheelchairs, electronic stimulators, assisted gait training and other computer-assisted technology.

Finding a Physical Therapist

Many of the physical therapists at Tidewater Physical Therapy Inc. hold Direct Access Certification through the Virginia Board of Physical Therapy allowing them to evaluate and treat patients without a prescription. As part of your healthcare team, a physical therapist will make an assessment of your condition and create a plan to start you on the road to wellness. Our team will communicate with your physician of record and obtain a referral, if necessary, for your continued treatment. We will also work with your insurance carrier to make sure services are covered by your plan. To make your own appointment, find a clinic near you.