When you first become spinal cord injured, doctors warn you a whole host of secondary-related things can happen now that you’re paralyzed. Things like heterotopic ossification and scoliosis, big words with even bigger conditions I really didn’t know a lot about. But I was only 14 and had a lot to learn about what it was like to be a quadriplegic. It’s funny how you think you’re immune to these things.
It’s less funny however when they finally occur, which is exactly what happened to me. These conditions didn’t happen right away of course, but give it a few years and unfortunately, me, you…we’re all susceptible. For me the first thing that happened was scoliosis, and then unfortunately other things started to rear their ugly face. And this is despite doing everything they told me I should do.
Unfortunately, rehab professionals can’t think of everything. There are things I could’ve done to avoid these conditions from happening. We just need to be better educated. It takes some extra work, but it can be done. Here are five things that have happened to me since my injury, and how you can help ensure, with enough hard work, they don’t happen to you.
One of the very first things noticed after a couple years of being paralyzed was my left ankle was starting to turn in while sitting on my footrest. It just didn’t want to stay straight. And when in bed, it didn’t have any support so it looked even worse, which is where it gets the term, “drop foot.” Looking like a droopy foot that sags inwards, the muscles around the ankle can sometimes completely stop becoming taut after a spinal cord injury, leading up to this dropping.
If I had been given proper ankle support in my early years of being paralyzed, especially when it comes to wearing high heels, I don’t think the drop foot would have developed in my left ankle. There is a surgery that can be done to fix it, but for now I will wait until a SCI cure is found. If you’re worried about developing drop foot, you can ask your occupational therapist to create plastic boots for you to wear while in bed to keep them upright and aligned.
Since I was injured in my early teens, I had a lot of growing left. Unfortunately, my therapists didn’t think to give me a proper back brace to ensure my back grew straight. I grew 4 inches after my injury, which unfortunately lead to a S-surve in my back. Even if I had been in 20s, long past my growing stage, scoliosis can still happen from sitting in a wheelchair when you don’t have the ability to move the muscles around your back and keep it straight. Getting fitted with the proper brace or seating are the best ways to prevent scoliosis from happening.
One of the stranger secondary conditions that can happen post-SCI is heterotopic ossification. This is when paralyzed muscles become hardened by calcium being deposited into muscles, usually around major joints of the body; notably the hips and knees. And it can happen out of nowhere. Many people with new injuries report this. Some say that it happens after having surgery in the area. Whatever causes this, your best plan when it comes to preventing this is to know the symptoms before it gets out of control.
When you’re skin becomes hot and reddened for no apparent reason and stays that way for a couple of days, definitely go see a doctor. It can sometimes grow out of no where post-injury, and can severely limit your range of motion. Surgery to remove it is possible, but a lot of blood is lost during this surgery.
One of the more classic side effects of having a spinal cord injuries is osteoporosis. Men and women are both susceptible to this condition since it’s caused by not being able to walk, i.e. not putting enough weight on your bones to give them the pressure they need.
My legs have definitive osteoporosis, as my DEXA scan revealed a few years ago (a machine that can scan for osteoporosis). Unfortunately, I did not use by standing frame enough over the years to prevent this. One must stand at least 1 hour a day to prevent osteoporosis from happening. It is a serious commitment, but it is great for you in the long run.
Contracted Fingers (and other joints)
And last but certainly not least is contracted fingers and joints. This too is something that has happened to me over the years, especially in my fingers. Since I can’t move them, they form a paw-shape and the joints around my fingers have become too stiff. Surgery can undo this contraction, but with enough stretching many contractions can be prevented. Remember, daily ROM :)
It’s not pretty thinking about all of the conditions that can happen after becoming paralyzed, but boy is it an important topic. If you have any other tips for preventing the conditions above, please let us know in the comments below.
What SCI secondary condition has hit you the hardest?
Photo courtesy of Flickr