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Imagine what it would be like after a spinal cord injury.

If your legs were totally paralyzed with no active movement, how would you get out of bed? You can’t stand up, so you would put a thin piece of wood called a sliding board underneath you and use your arms to slide your body down the board into your wheelchair. What if your spinal cord injury was at the level of your neck and your hands were totally paralyzed. How would you feed yourself? You would wear a special brace attached to your wrist that would hold the fork for you.

These are just a couple of examples of how a person’s life changes after a spinal cord injury.

The spinal cord is a long thin bundle of nerve tissue that looks like a long rope about the width of your little finger. It runs from the base of your brain to the lower part of your back. The function of the spinal cord is to send signals to and from the brain. For movement, the brain sends messages through the spinal cord to the muscles that coordinate tasks such as walking or raising your hand to your mouth for eating. For sensation, the nerves in your body collect information and send it up the spinal cord to the brain, which allows you to be aware of feelings such as heat, cold, touch or pain.

A spinal cord injury can lead to loss of movement and feeling. It also can affect how your brain controls internal organs that are responsible for bodily functions such as bladder control. The main problem is that the connection between your brain and the body below the injury is impaired or broken.

Many types of injuries and diseases can cause spinal cord injury.

If the space for the spinal cord becomes narrowed, the spinal cord can become injured. This can happen when bones in your back or neck are broken or when ligaments, which hold the bones together, are torn and the bones move in different directions. This often occurs if a person is unrestrained during a motor vehicle accident.

Gunshot wounds, stab wounds or fragments from explosions can damage the spinal cord without breaking bones. Some soldiers have experienced this type of spinal cord injury. Tumors, cancerous and noncancerous, can cause pressure to build up around the spinal cord leading to compression. Arthritis can affect the bones and slowly compress the cord. Also the blood supply to the spinal cord can be blocked causing part of the spinal cord to die.

There are some interesting statistics about spinal cord injuries.

The most common cause is motor vehicle crashes, which account for 39.2 percent. The next most common cause is falls at 28.3 percent, followed by acts of violence at 14.6 percent and sports at 8.2 percent.

The average age when injury occurs is 41, which has increased over time – it used to be between the ages of 16 and 30 – due to the median age of the general population increasing. Spinal cord injuries occur most among males. The incidence of spinal cord injury is about 12,000 new cases a year. The average yearly health care and living expenses range from $300,000 to $1 million, depending on the severity of the injury. The estimated lifetime costs range from $1 million to $4 million, depending on age at injury and severity.

There are many ways to reduce your risk of a spinal cord injury.

The use of a seat belt can reduce the odds of a spinal cord injury by

60 percent and in combination with airbags the odds can be reduced by 80 percent. Make sure your children are fastened in an age- and weight-appropriate child safety seat. To protect them from airbag injuries, children younger than 12 should always ride in the back seat. Other car safety measures include not driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, as well as not riding as a passenger with a driver under the influence.

There are other ways to prevent a spinal cord injury. Prevent falls by using a step stool with a grab bar to reach objects in high places. Add handrails along stairways. Put nonslip mats on floors in the tub or shower. Wear nonslip shoes and remove objects in the home that pose tripping hazards. For young children, use safety gates to block stairs and consider installing window guards.

Check water depth before diving and don’t dive into shallow water. Don’t dive into a pool unless it’s 9 feet deep or deeper. Don’t dive into an above-ground pool and don’t dive into any water that you don’t know the depth. Take precautions when playing sports. Always wear recommended safety gear – especially helmets. Avoid leading with your head in sports. For gun safety, firearms should be stored unloaded in a locked cabinet with bullets kept in a separate location.

At Community Medical Center we offer a comprehensive inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation program for people who have experienced a spinal cord injury.

Our services are provided by a multidisciplinary team of professionals with extensive experience treating spinal cord injured people. Some of the specific services we provide for spinal cord injuries include self-care training, wheelchair evaluation and training, upper extremity exercise programs, facilitation of neurological recovery of lower body movement through the RT 300 Cycle System (electrical stimulation is applied to weak or paralyzed muscles) and the Pneu-Weight Unweighting System (supports a person’s body weight during exercises), standing programs with standing frames, warm water pool therapy, driver training with hand controls, community reintegration and hand cycle clinics. Community Medical Center also sponsors a spinal cord injury support group that meets the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. in one of the hospital conference rooms.

Renee Redler is an occupational therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Montana at Community Medical Center.

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