Important Milestones in the Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Process
Nearly 300,000 Americans live with spinal cord injuries, with 12,500 new people surviving these injuries each year. In the early days following such an injury, you may be flooded with a range of emotions. Maybe you're thrilled to be alive, and ready to hit the ground running on rehab. Or perhaps, like many people, you're paralyzed by rage or depression, stuck wondering why such a terrible thing happened to you.
The overwhelming majority of spinal cord injury sufferers who make it through the first 24 hours survive their injuries. But the journey to recovery is long and often unpredictable. Some spinal cord injury sufferers spontaneously walk years after their injury. Others are never able to move again. While medical science can do a lot to predict what might happen to you, there are no guarantees when it comes to spinal cord injuries. What we do know is that a healthy lifestyle, sound psychological health, family support, and receiving treatment at a model system of care can all improve outcomes.
Here are some things you can expect during the spinal cord injury recovery process.
The Earliest Stage: Survival
The most challenging stage of a spinal cord injury is also the earliest. The moment you wake up in a hospital and learn you've survived a catastrophic injury, you might be overwhelmed—and perhaps even a little hopeless about what the future holds.
But if you have survived your injury, you've already accomplished an incredible feat. Up until about 50 years ago, few people survived spinal cord injuries. Even today, spinal cord injuries are immediately fatal in a significant number of people. If you have survived, you're already well on the road to recovery.
Critical Care, Surgery, and Hospitalization
The earliest days after your injury are often the most confusing. Depending upon the nature of your injury, you may undergo surgery, remain on a ventilator, and receive other lifesaving treatments. From there, you'll say in the hospital until you can safely be discharged—either to a long-term care facility or, if you are lucky, to go home.
The average hospital stay immediately following a spinal cord injury is 11 days. Many injury survivors then transition to rehabilitative facilities, at which the average stay is 36 days.
Release from the Hospital
The primary goal of hospitalization is to stabilize you, not to provide long-term treatment. But even as early as discharge from the hospital, an impressive 1% of spinal cord injury survivors have fully recovered. This might not sound like a lot, but when you consider the severity of these injuries, it becomes cleat that spontaneous recovery is an amazing occurrence.
When you are discharged from the hospital, you and your caregivers will need to construct a workable plan for managing your symptoms and improving your recovery. For this reason, many survivors find the discharge process stressful, since they may need to make financial decisions, interview in-home caregivers, and decide where to live.
Physical therapy isn't really a milestone, since it doesn't occur at a single point on the recovery timetable, and is never really over. Most spinal cord injury survivors commence physical therapy as quickly as they are able. The more energy you have to put into physical therapy, and the more closely you follow your therapist's instructions, the more likely you are to recover.
Physical therapy does more than just offer you exercise. It slowly rewires your nervous system, potentially empowering your brain to work around the site of the injury. Though there are no guarantees, some spinal cord injury survivors eventually walk, move, or even fully regain function with the assistance of physical therapy.
There is no single definition of physical recovery. Though most spinal cord injury survivors, regain some degree of functioning, some never do. Thus focusing solely on physical recovery can leave you feeling hopeless and overwhelmed.
Some common milestones for physical recovery include:
- The reduction of swelling at the site of the injury.
- Recovering from surgery.
- Regaining some sensation below the site of the injury.
- Regaining some movement below the site of the injury.
- Learning to use assistive devices such as wheelchairs and prostheses.
- Finding new ways to complete old tasks; for instance, you might change your approach to sex or making food.
- Strengthening your body so you can work around your injuries. You might learn how to type with a part of your body other than your hands, for instance.
Spinal cord injury guides, as well as doctors, lawyers, and loved ones, often focus on physical recovery. But this dogged fixation can actually undermine your psychological recovery. Poor psychological health can worsen your physical health, and believing that physical recovery is the only way to be happy can likewise undermine your psychological well-being. It is possible to be happy even in the face of a painful injury. Indeed, one study found that 86% of quadriplegics rated their lives as better than average.
This attitude can take some time to cultivate, but once you've mastered it, you may realize an important truth about life: happiness comes from within, and the way you think about things affects the way you perceive them. Spinal cord injuries are challenging, and there is no shame in seeking psychological help. Many survivors struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, but with family support and lots of help, you can find new ways to live a life you love.
Integrating Your Injury
There is no single point at which you will be fully recovered. Even if you make a miraculous physical recovery, the psychological scars of your injury may still linger. Consequently, most doctors and mental health experts talk about the importance of integrating your injury into your life, rather than of full recovery. When you achieve this final milestone, you will see yourself as a spinal cord injury survivor, but your spinal cord injury will not subsume your entire identity. Instead, it becomes just one facet of who you are—neither bad nor good, just one of many experiences that makes you unique.
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