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How To Care For A Loved One With A Spinal Cord Injury

How To Care For A Loved One With A Spinal Cord Injury

Having a loved one diagnosed with a spinal cord injury (SCI) is frightening, and many people will automatically envision the worst-case scenario. However, the symptoms, treatment options, and outlook will vary.

If you have opted to care for someone who has sustained this type of injury, it’s vital to understand how to help them emotionally and mentally as well as physically. Enlisting the help of a professional carer who specialises in spinal cord injury can help not just the person receiving the care, but you too. Your health and wellbeing are also important, and you must take care of yourself before you can help care for someone else. 

How are spinal cord injuries classified?

Spinal cord injuries are assigned a classification that tells doctors, specialists and anyone involved in the care team where the damage is and the level of movement and feeling your loved one has. You have probably already heard the classification, which is a letter followed by a number. Here are the symptoms that can be expected with each classification. Bowel and bladder control can also be affected with any of these.

Spinal cord injury classifications
Part of the body affected Classification numbers What this means
Cervical (Neck) Cervical vertebrae: C1-C7Cervical nerves: C1-C8 These types of injuries can cause function loss in the legs, arms and chest area.
Cervical injuries can also impact breathing.
Thoracic (Chest) Thoracic vertebrae: T1-T12
Thoracic nerves: T1-T12
Thoracic injuries usually impact the chest and legs.
Injury to the upper area can also affect breathing.
Lumbar Lumbar vertebrae: L1-L5
Lumbar nerves: L1-L5
Damage to this area will affect the legs and hips. 
Sacral (Pelvis to the end of the spine) Sacral vertebrae: S1-S5
Sacral nerves: S1-S5
Injuries to this area usually impact the legs and hips.

You may also hear the term ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’ used to classify the injury. This refers to whether there is any movement or feeling below the area that was injured. 

There are six types of incomplete injuries:

  • Central cord syndrome
  • Anterior cord syndrome
  • Brown-Séquard syndrome
  • Posterior cord syndrome
  • Conus medullaris syndrome
  • Cauda equina syndrome

And your doctor or care practitioner will be able to explain which is relevant to your loved one’s injury and the impact it will have. 

How does spinal cord injury affect the body?

The impact of an SCI will depend on where the damage is. Some symptoms can include:

  • Altered or loss of movement and sensation
  • Inability to feel through touch or sense hot or cold 
  • Coughing or breathing problems
  • Lost control of the bladder or bowels
  • Stinging or other pain
  • Altered sexual function of infertility

The type of care you should expect to give will depend on how their injury impacts your loved one. If, for example, your loved one no longer senses pain, you will need to be aware of this and guide them so that they don’t accidentally injure themselves. Alternatively, you may need to help them navigate around the house and assist with hygiene practices. 

Can someone recover from a spinal cord injury?

The great news is recovery may be possible. While full-recovery may not be an option, the spinal specialists in your care team will put together a treatment plan to help your loved one regain as much control as possible. 

Some treatment options include:

  • Medication
  • Special bed immobilisation
  • Surgery
  • Rehabilitation treatment

Your care team should outline the options available. 

How long does it take for spinal nerves to heal?

It’s important to remember that recovery is different for everybody and you or your loved one should never compare their recovery time to someone else’s. In general, significant improvements are made within the first six months. The maximum recovery is usually reached within twelve months. Following this, treatment may turn into management as any remaining symptoms at this point are likely to be permanent. Emotional support during this time is just as crucial as physical support.

How do you care for someone with a spinal injury?

The type and severity of the injury will impact how you care for them. You could be required to do anything from watching out for things that could cause a further injury, to assisting in dressing, washing and other bathroom management. You may need to take over household chores.

There are additional complications that may stem from spinal cord injury, such as:

  • Blood clots
  • Chronic pain
  • Pressure sores
  • Pneumonia
  • Muscle spasms
  • UTI’s 
  • Incontinence of the bowel
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

It is worth asking the doctor or care team what you should keep an eye out for to ensure your loved one stays as healthy as possible during recovery.

The physical changes caused by an SCI will affect your loved one’s mental and emotional health too. Therefore, in addition to assisting with their physical needs, you will also find yourself caring for their mental health too. It’s worth asking your doctor to arrange professional mental health support for both of you. 

It’s also worth considering investing in additional assistance. This can occur in your loved one’s home to help to lighten your load, especially if you have a full-time job or family of your own to care for. Additionally, carers trained in SCI can assist in rehabilitation activities.

Caring for someone with a spinal cord injury is an incredibly selfless act. The road ahead will be long and complicated, so any additional support you can invest in is worthwhile. However, there is hope for some form of recovery, so it is vital that you both maintain your spirits and, perhaps most importantly, you make sure to take care of yourself too.

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