The Role of a Physical Therapist in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

A physical therapist plays an integral role in your recovery after a life-altering spinal cord injury (SCI). This healthcare professional is there throughout much of your spinal cord injury rehabilitation to help guide you toward achieving optimal gains during the recovery process.

Rehabilitation therapy is commonly a multidisciplinary approach that involves multiple healthcare professionals ranging from nurses and case managers to psychologists and physical and occupational therapists. The team typically works under the direction of a physiatrist or SCI physician, and each job plays a different but essential role in your recovery. This therapy can take place in a hospital, rehabilitation center, or at an SCI-focused specialized facility such as an activity-based therapy (ABT) center.

The quality of care received after a spinal cord injury matters. If you or someone you loved has recently sustained an SCI, here is a breakdown of what a physical therapist does throughout the spinal cord injury rehabilitation process.

The Role of a Physical Therapist in SCI Physical Therapy

Over the past several decades, the focus of spinal cord injury rehabilitation has shifted from issues of medical management to those that affect daily life and participation in the community. At its core, the purpose of spinal cord injury rehabilitation is to:

  • Maximize your sensory and motor function recovery,
  • Prevent secondary complications and health issues, and
  • Help you reintegrate with society.

A good physical therapist will tailor your rehabilitative treatment based on your goals and your injury level and severity (such as having an incomplete vs. complete spinal cord injury, or a cervical spinal cord injury vs. a lumbar SCI). They will take the time to get to know you, treat you with respect, help motivate you, and will help you stay informed to make better decisions for your recovery.

Physical Activity Matters in Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

The importance of being physically active after a spinal cord injury increases as medical research becomes more advanced and aware of the specific needs of spinal cord injury patients. The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reaffirms the 2008 guidelines that engaging in “at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and 2 days per week of muscle-strengthening exercise” has substantial health benefits.

The report states: “Moderate evidence indicates that physical activity improves walking function, muscular strength, and upper extremity function for persons with spinal cord injury.”

Other studies also have shown positive effects from physical therapy interventions. One study suggested that “Four of five PT interventions positively impacted the individual's perceived participation and satisfaction with participation.”

What to Look for in an SCI Physical Therapist

Much like looking for a doctor, choosing the right physical therapist is vital to your spinal cord injury recovery. You’ll want someone who is experienced and qualified in your type of injury, so it’s always good to ask your physician if they can recommend a specific physical therapist. Otherwise, if you know anyone else with an SCI, ask them for a recommendation of who you can work with or if there is a physical therapist that you should avoid.

Here are a few considerations when choosing a physical therapist:

  • Carefully review the therapist’s credentials and educational background to ensure that they are qualified to treat you or your loved one. While these professionals are trained to provide therapy for a variety of health conditions, some have specialized training and advanced skills that are better suited to your individual needs.
  • Get to know about them and their personality. While having the best, brightest, or most skilled physical therapist can be beneficial, if your personalities clash, it will hinder your progress.
  • Be ready to ask questions about their approach spinal cord injury functional rehabilitation.
  • Share what you liked (or didn’t like) about any previous physical therapy experiences.
  • Meet with the physical therapist in person or via video chat, if possible. This way you can see, hear, and interact with them and read their body language during the conversation.
  • Read online reviews about them, if available.

Spinal cord injuries are traumatic events that can alter your life and the lives of your family. SCIs are stressful and require costly care and treatment, which can have significant impacts on your health, social relationships, lifestyle, and finances.

The Cost of Spinal Cord Injuries, Physical Therapy & Care

The average annual costs for someone living with a high tetraplegia (C1-C4) cervical spinal cord injury tops more than $1.1 million in the first year alone, and another $191,000 for each subsequent year, according to the most recent data from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC).

If your injury was the result of the actions or inactions of another person or business, a spinal cord injury lawsuit or settlement could help you to receive compensation for your injuries. A caring and experienced spinal cord injury lawyer, such as a lawyer from Swope, Rodante P.A., helps SCI survivors receive compensation for a variety of spinal cord injuries. For example, a U.S. Army veteran was able to secure a $12.5 million settlement for his injuries from an accident that rendered him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic by working with the Swope, Rodante P.A. team.

To learn more about living with a spinal cord injury, physical therapy, other rehabilitative treatments, and legal options, click on the image below to download our free resource.

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