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Last Modified: December 29, 2022

Life After a Spinal Cord Injury

Published on July 10, 2014 • Last updated December 29, 2022 by Ken Christensen
Topics: Neck Injuries

As was mentioned in earlier blog posts, there are resources out there that can help a person with a spinal cord injury gain their independence. We talked about the losses that people with spinal cord  injuries will experience, and how those losses, while difficult, can be lived with. We discussed the possibility of using walking aides, like crutches and leg braces—we even mentioned that it is possible for a person with a spinal cord injury to drive their own vehicle. With the help of existing resources and skilled professionals, life can be a lot better for people with spinal cord injuries and they can feel like a part of society once more.

Diagnosis and treatment

First, let’s start by discussing the diagnosis of your injury. The diagnosis of your injury will determine what physical abilities you will or will not have that will affect your independence. Once your surgeon or doctor has fixed and repaired your injured spine, they will be able to assess the damage that has been done to your spinal cord. After they have completed this assessment and have declared you physically stable and you are able to leave the Intensive Care Unit ( ICU ), your rehabilitation will begin. In that rehabilitation, you will be assigned a medical team and a social worker. The medical team that is assigned to you will consist of a doctor, a nurse, a physical and occupational therapist, and a social worker. Together, they will assess and figure out what exactly it is that you will need to gain your independence. These professionals will know how and where to tap into the resources that are out there that will be of great use to you. They will work with your insurance to make sure the things you will need will be paid for. While these details are being sorted out, you will be able to concentrate on your therapies and on getting stronger and becoming more independent. You will be able to focus on the instruction and information that is being given to you to educate yourself about your injury, including your daily care routine. Your doctor, nurses, therapists, and social workers will work together to make sure that you have an excellent quality of physical and mental health. It is their goal to make sure that your transition back to home life is a pleasant one and that you are able to function is all aspects of your life.

By “all aspects of your life,” we are referring to daily tasks that must be complete in order for you to live a healthy life. There are things that must be done every day that will keep you from getting sick and having bad hygiene. These tasks include using the toilet, bathing, and dressing—including transferring from bed to chair and chair to bed. If these tasks are not completed on a daily basis, a person with a spinal cord injury will experience a lot of problems.


The first thing many people do each day is go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, for a person with a spinal cord injury, this task can seem quite time-consuming and difficult. Your doctor, nurse, and occupational therapist can give you instruction and help you obtain the right medical aides and equipment that will make this task easier for you.

For instance, a person with a spinal cord injury will have a difficult time being able to eliminate waste. An able-bodied person can eliminate waste by sitting down and pushing the waste out, but for a person with a spinal cord injury, the function of those muscles that help push waste out is not longer there. A person with a spinal cord injury will have to use the medical aid of a suppository or enema to help initiate movement.


The next daily step for most people is bathing. A person with a spinal cord injury cannot just simply stand up in the shower and bathe themselves. They will have to use a shower chair that is padded, so they can either bathe themselves or bathe with the help of a caregiver. There are two main types of shower chairs for people with spinal cord injures: padded chairs and padded rolling shower chairs. Through your therapies, your occupational therapist will be able to known which type of shower chair will work best for you.

Getting Dressed

Many of us take the task of dressing for granted, but for people with spinal cord injuries, getting dressed is not easy. There are so many muscles that you use to dress yourself, which can make the task very difficult and time-consuming for a person with a spinal cord injury—especially a person with a high-neck injury. Your occupational therapist  can teach you or your caregiver how to use the proper tools and technique to dress yourself. Depending on the severity of the injury, a person may or may not be able to entirely dress themselves. For instance, a person with a C1 through C2 break that is complete will always need the help of a caregiver or family member to put on their clothing, as they will not be able to dress themselves. However, a person with a lower break like a C4 through L5 and so on will have the use of their arms, and will be able to put on some of their own clothing.

In order to do these things, a person has to know how to transfer themselves. This is where a physical therapist comes in. A physical therapist will teach you technique that allows you to transfer your body from one place to another. Unfortunately, with a spinal cord injury, the ability to use you legs will be affected. So, to help you gain your independence, physical therapists help you learn how to move your body by the use of your arms. This allows you to lift your body up from a laying down position to a siting up position, and then allows you to slide yourself over to the wheelchair. Once this physical task has been mastered, you are well on your way to having your independence.

Devices that bring physical independence in our society.

There are many devices out there that will give a person with a spinal cord injury their physical independence.  There are three very important medical transportation aides that bring a great deal of independence to individuals with spinal cord injuries in Utah: wheelchairs, UTA transit service, and fitted hand controls for a vehicle. Once you learn to use these things, the doors to your personal independence will open.

Using a wheelchair

A wheelchair will make it possible for you to get to a lot of places, such as around your house, to the bus stop, or to a friend’s house. A wheelchair will even give you the opportunity to get around stores, shopping malls, and hospitals—including your own job. When traveling by wheelchair, it is important to remember that people with spinal cord injuries often are sensitive to extreme temperatures. It is important to watch the weather and avoid extremely hot or extremely cold temperatures to save yourself from heatstroke and hypothermia. You are welcome to go outside; you just need to be careful about how long you are outside for. If you want to stay protected in the heat it’s best to wear light clothing like shorts, T-shirt, tennis shoes or sandals. You must wear sunscreen to protect your skin from sunburn. A sunburn can trigger lots of muscle spasms in the body. And most of all, drink plenty of water. In cold weather, wear warm clothing and still drink plenty of water. The reason I stress drink plenty of water is because dehydration can lead to a urinary tract infection or (U. T. I).  A  (U. T. I)  is something you don’t want to get on a monthly basis, as it can make your life extremely more difficult.

Using the bus and Frontrunner: UTA

frontrunner bus

Another good resource that would provide you with your independence is using the bus system. UTA has a good system that will get you anywhere in the Salt Lake Valley you want to go. However, there are rules to follow when riding UTA transit system. Once you know what those rules are and follow them properly, you can be assured that you will arrive to your destination on time.

Driving with hand controls

A car could be of great benefit to you, especially in bad weather and over long distances. However, you need to remember that the physical function of your body will be affected by your spinal cord injury. Depending on how much damage was sustained to the spinal cord, you may be able to drive a car with hand controls only. Your physical therapist and doctor can help you strengthen your body so you can become stronger, and so that you will be able to drive your own vehicle with the use of your hands and arms.

Living with a spinal cord injury is not easy, but with the resources and professional help available, it is possible.

Photo copyright to Joe Tordiff

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