What I Wish My Occupational Therapists Would've Taught Me When I Was Newly Injured
Occupational therapists are incredibly important after a spinal cord injury. Focusing on your upper body, they help you figure out new ways to do everything from cooking to brushing your hair. Quadriplegics, they're also educated on adaptive utensils and finger and hand management.
But like anyone in their field, they do not know everything. Sometimes it takes someone who has actually lived with the condition to be able to give helpful insight. Here are some words of wisdom people with spinal cord injuries with their occupational therapists would have told them during inpatient therapy.
Your Hands, Your Choice
If you have a lower cervical injury that resulted in arm and wrist movement but limited to no finger movement, many occupational therapists will say it's best to let your fingers stiffen and curl slightly so they are more functional for holding things.
They will make custom molds for your hands to contract in a specific way. This however is not as common anymore, as many people with new injuries are no longer interested in letting their hands contract, due to surgeries that are now available, like tendon transfer surgery.
Also, there are arm and hand exoskeletons that would make it difficult to use with semi-contracted fingers. We encourage you to stand up for what you want when in inpatient therapy and work with your occupational therapist. Do not let them push you into doing something you do not want to do to your hands.
Stretch Fingers Daily
Occupational therapists will stretch your hands on a regular basis. Some will also create a splint to keep your hands open that is worn for several hours a day. As the years progress after your injury, however, people tend to stop stretching their fingers. We advise you not to do this. All it takes is 1 to 2 years of not stretching for finger contractions to occur.
Finger Manipulation Can Increase Your Independence
If you have a lower cervical injury, it is also important to learn the art of finger manipulation. This means figuring out ways to hold things, like a pencil or a fork, without using a quad cuff or anything else for assistance. Unfortunately, occupational therapists do not teach this and instead show people to be reliant on adaptive utensils.
DIY Adaptive Utensils
Not every adaptive utensil is purchased through a medical equipment magazine. Many people invent various items to increase their independence post-injury and this could be you too. From a specialized reacher to a lap tray with cup holders, the items that have been invented by those with spinal cord injuries are impressive.
You’ll Get Better and More Independent in Time
It is easy to feel dejected when discharged from occupational therapy when you were not able to reach all of your goals. Keep in mind that as the year's progress after your injury, you will get stronger and more agile in everything you're working on. It is amazing how strong people get 5 even 10 years post-injury. Be patient, and you will improve.
Bag Technique for Picking Things Up
One of the biggest independent living tips for those with arm movement but limited in their hands or strength is using a plastic or paper bag to pick up things off of the floor or for getting things out of the fridge. Simply put the bag on the floor, laying it on its side, then use a reacher to push things into the bag.
This is a great technique for picking up heavy things like a jar of tomato sauce which cannot be picked up using a traditional reacher. Many people will use this technique for items in their refrigerator or pantry. To do this, put all of your foodstuff items in various plastic bags, then all you need to do is grab the bag, and voila, the item is instantly on your lap.
If you have an interest in more advice for others with spinal cord injuries, we encourage you to follow people with spinal cord injuries on social media. Many people love sharing their independent living skills on a regular basis.
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Spinal Cord Team