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Q&A: Facts About Spinal Cord Injury


Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

This post was last updated on September 7, 2016

It is estimated that 12,500 people sustain a spinal cord injury (SCI) each year. Some injure their spinal cord in accidents, or as a result of an infection or disease. This injury can severely impair mobility and force a number of lifestyle changes, as a result. In order to improve function and restore independence, these individuals will require spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Amanda Harrington, MD, director, Spinal Cord Injury Services, answers questions about the rehabilitation process for SCI below.

What Is a Spinal Cord Injury?

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves and tissues within the spine that connect to the brain to make up the central nervous system, and send messages and signals throughout your body. SCI occurs when there is damage to any part of the cord or the nerves at the end of the spinal canal. When you suffer an injury to your spinal cord, you may experience permanent changes to your body’s strength, sensations, and functions, including loss of movement, spasms, or intense pain.

What Causes a Spinal Cord Injury?

Common causes of SCI include:

  • Diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, or a spinal cord infection
  • Falls
  • Gunshot or knife wounds
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Recreational activities or sports

When Does the Rehabilitation Process Begin?

Rehabilitation will begin shortly after you develop a spinal cord injury. Rehabilitation will intensify once you can be transferred from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility. Typically, intense rehab begins one to three weeks after you sustain the injury, however, this length of time can vary based on the severity of your injury and any additional injuries you may have.

Who Is Involved in the Rehabilitation Process?

Rehabilitation is an interdisciplinary process, and your rehab team may include experts in:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech Therapy
  • Neuropsychology
  • Case management
  • Nutrition services
  • Vocational and community re-entry services

What Will I Be Asked to Do During Rehab Sessions?

Rehabilitation sessions will focus on improving strength in functioning muscles and practicing techniques to improve recovery. Your therapists will guide you through stretching and strengthening routines. Depending on your level of injury, you will also practice how to get in and out of a wheelchair or how to walk with assistive devices. Therapy and nursing staff also help retrain you to complete tasks such as dressing and bathing despite your limitations. You will have sessions in your room where you can practice getting ready for the day.

How Long Is a Rehab Session?

Patients typically have three to four hours of therapy per day approximately six days a week, although this can vary from patient to patient.

How Long Will I Need to Participate in Rehabilitation?

Length of stay in rehabilitation will depend on your level of SCI, any additional medical problems, and insurance coverage. A rehab stay may range from one week for a very mild injury up to eight weeks for a severe injury.

Will I Be Offered Follow up Care?

Following discharge, it is recommended that you see your spinal cord injury physician every few months. You will also have ongoing rehab with home care or outpatient therapy. Over time, you may be able to see your doctor less.

For more information about spinal cord injury rehabilitation at UPMC, please visit the Center for Spinal Cord Injury website or call 1-877-AT-REHAB (287-3422).

physical medicine rehab

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

The Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) provides physician services at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and numerous outpatient clinics throughout western Pennsylvania. The Department’s mission is to maximize the health, function, and well-being of the people they serve by providing the highest quality rehabilitative medical care, conducting highly relevant, cutting-edge research, and training the next generation of clinicians and researchers. Read More