What next? Life after a spinal injury

14 August 2017

Spinal Injury blog series - part eight

Spinal injuries are unpredictable and life changing. The location of the injury is key, and generally speaking the higher up the injury, the more severe the consequences.  An injury is classified as complete or incomplete depending on whether strength or sensation is preserved below the level of injury. 

A complete cervical spine injury may require one to have breathing support. Individuals with this type of injury may be tetraplegic (also known as quadriplegic) with no motor function of the upper and lower limbs. If it is a complete injury in the lumbar spine, then the individual may retain control and use of the upper limbs but no motor function in the lower limbs.  If the injury is incomplete, then there may still be some sensation and motor function below the location of the injury.  There are a range of injuries and possible outcomes.

I myself suffered from a spinal injury, although today it is invisible to the naked eye.  At the age of 13, I was thrown off a horse when jumping. I recall rolling into a ball before landing flat on my spine and the pain that followed.  I had fractured several vertebrae in my lower thoracic spine and crushed a disc (at T12/L1 to be precise).  My spinal cord was not affected.

I was put into a rigid plastic corset (which went from my clavicle to my sacrum) for six months during which time I had a robotic gait. Afterwards, I commenced an intensive programme of physiotherapy coupled with intensive swimming.  I made a good recovery and my injury was of low level severity.  That said, nearly 20 years later, I still receive regular follow up from physiotherapists. My back remains weak and there is a noticeably tender spot where the muscle tissues are different. I have a specific exercise routine to keep my core strong because if I loose muscle strength then the pain creeps back.   I have been advised that it will get worse with age.  Although my injury was not permanently debilitating and is well managed, to this day I continue to learn how to deal with it.

As a medical negligence and personal injury solicitor, I have worked on behalf of a number of individuals who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries. I have assisted individuals in the early stages of the injury, where the road ahead seems littered with challenges and lives are turned upside down.

There is often a period of grieving in the early stages. It can take years to acknowledge the injury and its profound changes on the body and the mind.   Spinal injuries are traumatic and individuals should not shy away from seeking specialist psychological support.

Tasks like washing, dressing or even using the toilet become new challenges.  Bodily functions change after a spinal injury and it is common for individuals with complete injuries to lose bowel and bladder function.  Strategies need to be put in place to manage continence.

Other areas can be affected like sexual function, fertility, pain sensations and skin problems arising from new pressure points.  Accommodation can become unsuitable and need substantial adaptations or even relocation.  Anyone with a severe spinal cord injury would say that almost every aspect of their life changes and that often even the simplest of tasks need rethinking.

Most spinal injuries are evolving.  Physical therapy is essential to maximise physical functioning (for example, a paraplegic may want to focus on developing upper limb strength).  Rehabilitation takes places with a multi-disciplinary team which can include physiotherapist, nurses, rehabilitation consultants and occupational therapist.  Each spinal injury is unique therefore individuals need tailored rehabilitation.

Spinal injuries are increasingly common. There are over 40,000 people in the UK living with spinal injuries.  There are approximately 12,000 new spinal cord injuries every year in America. The most common causes are falls and road traffic accidents. As numbers rise, online and offline support groups are formed, new medical treatments are explored, and innovative equipment is designed. You can read more about these developments in our recent blog "Further developments in spinal injury research".

Charities, such as the Spinal Injuries Association, provide support to all of those affected by spinal cord injuries.  They provide comprehensive and practical advice through peers who themselves have had such an injury.

There are also numerous vocational opportunities, including volunteering and working.  Charities such as Riding For the Disabled use animal therapy by enabling individuals to horse ride.

The RDA’s approach is to focus on what an individual can do instead of their limitations. Individuals who take up new activities can achieve remarkable sporting achievements; the national Paralympics team is a testament to this.  I have seen individuals over the years who have been severely injured but show incredible resilience and strength in embarking on this unplanned chapter of life.  

If you, or a member of your family, are affected by any of the issues covered in our blogs please contact one of our specialist spinal and back injury lawyers on enquiries@kingsleynapley.co.uk or call us on 0207 814 1200.

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