Health Library

Rehabilitation After a Spinal Cord injury

What is rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury?

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 prevent 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 may need to need to spend time in rehabilitation facility, or "rehab," as part of your recovery.

Why might I need rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury?

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

After a spinal injury, you may be at risk for complications. Rehab may help prevent them. Possible complications 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


What are the risks of rehabilitation for spinal cord injury?

During rehab, your therapists will help you do different exercises and help you move around. As a result, another injury could happen during rehab, however your therapist will take extra care to prevent any additional injury. It is possible that you will also develop sore muscles from your exercises and activities.

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

There is also the risk that parts of your rehabilitation might not be able to overcome or help with some of the effects of your injury.

How do I get ready for rehabilitation for spinal cord injury?

Your medical providers 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 be led by a physiatrist (also called a physical medicine and rehabilitation physician), a doctor who specializes in rehabilitation. Other members on your team may be rehab nurses, psychologists for emotional support, and physical and occupational therapists.

What happens during rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury?

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.

Individual therapists may work with you on specific tasks, including daily living activities like eating and dressing yourself, as well as job-related skills.


What happens after rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury?

Your rehab specialists may help assess your home to see if it is safe and accessible for you. For instance, he or she will help you determine whether you will be able to easily use your wheelchair in your home or if you’ll need to make safety improvements to your bathroom. You may need special devices and equipment around your home after rehab.

Tell your power company and emergency services providers about your injury in case of an emergency. Your rehab team will also assist you in arranging help from family, friends, or care providers to help you with your day-to-day needs.

Next steps

Before you agree to the test or the procedure make sure you know:

  • The name of the test or procedure
  • The reason you are having the test or procedure
  • The risks and benefits of the test or procedure
  • When and where you are to have the test or procedure and who will do it
  • When and how will you get the results
  • How much will you have to pay for the test or procedure