How a Spinal Cord Injury Affects the Body


Your spinal cord runs from your brain down through your spine. Your brain sends messages out to your body through your spinal cord. These messages help you move your body parts, like when you pick up a cup or walk to the mailbox. As you go about daily tasks, messages travel from your arms, legs, and the rest of your body back to your brain through your spinal cord.

A spinal cord injury can keep your brain and body from communicating normally. If you've had a spinal cord injury, you may need surgery or other treatments to address the injury. Afterward, you will need to spend time in rehabilitation, or "rehab," as part of your recovery.

Reasons for the rehabilitation

The rehabilitation process may help you regain some functions that the injury took away. You may need to learn new ways to control your body, take care of yourself, or use a wheelchair. The tasks you'll work on in rehab depend on the type of injury that occurred.

Risks of rehabilitation

During rehab, you may be asked to do different exercises, and therapists may help you move around. As a result, you could be injured during rehab. You may also develop sore muscles from your exercises and activities.

After a spinal injury, you may be at risk for complications. Your rehab specialists will take steps to help prevent them, but they may still happen. They include:

  • Pressure ulcers, also called bedsores

  • Breathing problems and pneumonia

  • A drop in blood pressure when you move around

  • Muscle weakness and muscle spasm

  • Blood clots

  • Difficulty moving joints

  • Pain

  • Bowel and bladder problems

  • Reproductive and sexual function problems

There may be other risks, depending on your specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with your doctor before rehabilitation.

Before rehabilitation begins

You will require medical attention for a spinal injury before you have rehabilitation. For example, you may need surgery on your spine. If you can't breathe on your own, your doctor may need to make an opening in your windpipe. A breathing machine connected to this opening may be needed to help you breathe. Your doctors will determine when you will start a rehab program.

Rehab specialists may begin working with you while you're still in the hospital. A rehab team often has a variety of specialists, depending on your needs. Your rehab program will probably by led by a physiatrist, a doctor who specializes in rehabilitation. Other members on your team may be rehab nurses, psychologists for emotional support, and physical therapists—individual therapists may work with you on specific tasks, including daily living activities like eating and dressing yourself, and job-related skills.

During rehabilitation

Your rehab providers will discuss the results you may expect to see over the short-term and long-term. These results will depend on your type of injury and how much strength you have below the level of the injury.

While in rehab, your providers may help you with tasks including:

  • Moving around. Depending on your injury, you may be able to walk with braces or you may require a wheelchair. You will learn to use these mobility devices.

  • Dealing with complications. If your injury caused many changes in the way your body works, your rehab providers will teach you how to prevent and treat complications.

  • Doing things in a different way. Your providers may teach you how to get in and out of a car, roll over in bed, bathe, and do other daily activities that allow you to be more independent.

After rehabilitation

Your rehab specialists may check your home to see if, for instance, you’ll be able to easily use your wheelchair or if you’ll need to make safety improvements to your bathroom. You may need special devices and equipment around your home after rehab.

Your power company and emergency services provider should be told about your injury in case of later emergency. You may also need to make arrangements to get help from family, friends, or care providers to help you with your day-to-day needs.