Recovery from spinal cord injuries usually begins in the hospital, immediately after the injury occurs. The extent of recovery will depend on how severe the injury is.

People with spinal cord injuries may experience a loss of function around the body. This loss of function can be permanent. However, some people do make a full recovery.

Spinal cord injuries can cause secondary conditions, such as pressure sores and blood clots. People with secondary conditions such as these will need long-term care.

This article will discuss what recovery might look like for someone with a spinal cord injury, including the stages of recovery, long-term management, and the support a person can get.

a woman having physical therapy as part of her spinal cord injury recovery planShare on Pinterest
Physical therapy can form part of a person’s recovery program.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimate that around 17,000 spinal cord injuries occur each year in the United States. Around half of these injuries occur in people aged 16–30. Most people with a spinal cord injury are male.

The recovery process for a spinal cord injury depends on how severe the injury is. For example, people with incomplete spinal cord injuries have a better chance of recovery.

An incomplete injury occurs when something partially damages the spinal cord, but signals from the brain can still get through to other parts of the body. A complete injury is more severe, preventing all the nerve signals from traveling through the spinal cord.

A doctor will grade the severity of the injury using the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) grading scale. In this scale, a grading of ASIA A denotes a complete injury, while a grading of ASIA E means that the person’s injury has not affected their sensory or muscle function.

Many people with spinal cord injuries experience a loss of bodily function, or paralysis. People with incomplete injuries will often regain some function. However, making a full recovery is rare.

The risk of mortality is highest in the first year after the injury, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). During this time, people with spinal injuries are two to five times more likely to die early than someone without an injury.

The sections below will discuss the stages of recovery in more detail.

First stage

The first stage of recovery occurs immediately following a spinal cord injury. This will involve spending time in the hospital, usually in a critical care department. Sometimes, a person will also need to undergo surgery.

A doctor will first check that the person’s airways are clear and that their heart is beating normally. They will then test their movement and whether or not there is any sensation in the arms and legs.

The doctor may use a brace called a cervical collar to keep the spine stable. To examine the damage further, they may also use medical imaging, such as an MRI or CT scan.

Over the next few days, the doctor will focus on limiting the damage and reducing the risk of complications.

After initial treatment in the hospital, the doctor will organize long-term care on a case-by-case basis. They will only release someone with a spinal injury from care once they are stable.

Second stage

The second stage of recovery takes place outside of the hospital and focuses on rehabilitation. This may include undergoing physical or occupational therapy, and it sometimes involves counseling.

In most cases, a person will likely need to live in a subacute rehabilitation facility, where they will receive up to 3 hours of rehabilitation per day.

Some people will need regular checkups with their doctor during the first year. Rehabilitation and care will often continue for many years.

People with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers will also need to monitor for complications during this stage.

In some cases, a person may recover some bodily function up to 18 months after the injury. In a small number of cases, a person can even regain function years after the injury.

Long-term treatment for people with spinal cord injuries is complex. The type of treatment will vary depending on the severity and location of the injury.

In most cases, a doctor will prescribe various forms of therapy to help with rehabilitation. They will also try to prevent or treat secondary health conditions, which are common in people with spinal injuries.

These secondary conditions include:

Around 15% of people with paralysis in both the upper and lower body develop pressure ulcers within a year of the injury. This form of paralysis is known as tetraplegia, or quadriplegia.

Some people may also experience problems with their mental health as a result of their injury. In fact, around 20–30% of people with spinal injuries show some signs of depression.

Emotional counseling or psychotherapy can help with mental health issues that arise in people with spinal injuries.

The following is an example of what the recovery timeline might look like for someone with a spinal cord injury. However, every case is different.

Immediately afterward
  • spine stabilization
  • diagnostic tests
  • medical imaging
  • emergency surgery, if necessary
The following days and weeks
  • damage and swelling reduction
  • release from the hospital
  • likely admission to a subacute rehabilitation facility
The first year
  • coordinated care, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and continued medical care
  • counseling
  • regular checkups
  • further surgery, if necessary
  • continuing rehabilitation
  • treatment for any complications

People with spinal cord injuries have many forms of support available to them.

Doctors and nurses will provide immediate support. People with long-term injuries often have regular contact with their medical team. Having a good relationship with them is an important part of recovery.

People with spinal cord injuries may also receive regular support from different therapists during the rehabilitation stage, such as physical therapists and psychotherapists.

Family and loved ones are other sources of support. They can help reduce feelings of isolation and provide emotional support.

Some people may have a carer who also helps with this, as well as with daily tasks such as washing and dressing.

Recovery from a spinal cord injury will depend on how severe the injury is.

Spinal cord injuries usually involve long periods of rehabilitation and recovery. Treatment begins immediately after the injury. The early stages of recovery involve hospital care and sometimes surgery.

People with spinal cord injuries are at greatest risk within the first year of the injury. As a result, this first year will involve regular checkups.

It is possible for some people to recover some function up to 18 months after the injury. However, many people will experience a permanent loss of function that requires long-term care.