Spinal Cord Injury (Quadriplegia): Care Instructions

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The spine and its parts


A spinal cord injury happens when a bone in your spine cuts or presses on the spinal cord. This stops communication between the brain and the rest of the body.

The closer the injury is to the head, the more the body is affected. Serious damage to the spinal cord in the neck can lead to not being able to use your arms and legs. This is called quadriplegia.

First, your doctor will try to prevent more damage to your spine and spinal cord. You may get braces, casts, or straps. You may also get medicines for swelling. Sometimes surgery is used. Surgery can remove bone. It can also stabilize or straighten the spine.

It can be scary and overwhelming to realize you are paralyzed. There is a lot to learn, but things usually get easier with practice and support. Don't be afraid to get support from family, friends, and counselors. You also can do things at home to feel better. A spinal cord injury changes some things forever. But you can still have a full and rewarding life.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

It may be awhile before you go home. You will learn many things during your treatment. Rehabilitation is training and therapy that helps you regain function and relearn skills that were lost as a result of your injury. Rehab begins in the hospital. A rehab team that includes doctors and nurses and physical, occupational, speech, and recreational therapists will help you with daily living.

When you do go home, these things may help:

  • Get emotional help if you need it. Discuss your concerns with your doctor, counselor, psychiatrist, or other health professional.
  • Learn to take care of your bladder so you do not get a urinary tract infection. You or a caregiver may need to put a thin tube into your bladder to drain the urine regularly. This tube is called a catheter.
  • Make a bowel management program with your doctor or other health professional. This will help you have regular bowel movements.
  • Learn how to prevent lung problems.
    • Stay up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines. And get shots to prevent flu and pneumococcal infection.
    • If you have a weak cough or a lot of mucus, you may need an assisted cough to help clear your lungs of mucus. Ask your doctor if it's a good idea and safe for you to try an assisted cough.
    • Practice deep breathing. This can strengthen the muscles that help you breathe.
  • Have a caregiver check your body regularly for signs of pressure injuries on your skin. These injuries can be slow to heal and may get infected. They usually occur on bony areas like the knees, hips, heels, or tailbone. They can also occur in skin folds. Change your position often. This can help prevent these injuries.
  • Look for signs of a common problem called autonomic dysreflexia. This can happen when your body can't control blood pressure. It can cause headaches, nausea, and a slow heart rate. It can also cause cold, clammy skin and sweating.
  • Do the exercises that your therapist recommends. Strong muscles can help you do everyday activities.
  • Join a support group. Talking about your injury with other people who have problems like yours can help you learn to live with a spinal injury.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have signs of a common problem called autonomic dysreflexia and the symptoms do not go away after 20 minutes. These include:
    • A pounding headache.
    • A flushed face or red patches on your skin above the level of the spinal injury.
    • Sweating above the level of the spinal injury.
    • Nausea.
    • Slow heart rate.
    • Cold, clammy skin above the level of the spinal injury.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have trouble breathing.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from an incision.
    • Pus draining from an incision.
    • A fever.
  • Your urine is cloudy or smells bad.
  • You need help with bathroom functions such as urination and bowel movements.
  • You have pressure injuries.
  • You feel hopeless and depressed.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

Enter A195 in the search box to learn more about "Spinal Cord Injury (Quadriplegia): Care Instructions".

The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.