Paralysis--more than an inconvenience

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on April 25, 2016 # Health

I thought I broke my left arm last month. I didn't know for sure, so finally tired of the constant pain and visited the doctor last week in order to learn the truth. Like many other things that have happened to me in the 28 years since I became paralyzed, this is just one of the many illnesses or injuries that I would not have faced if I hadn't been spinal cord injured.

The injury to my arm was so subtle that I don't really know when or how it happened. About the only thing that comes to mind is the act of fighting to open a door to one of many businesses that do not utilize electric door openers and have door pull pressures that exceed the requirements of the ADA and state access laws. That is a battle every time I shop or visit a restaurant, but this time I either seriously strained my triceps muscle or did something to the bones in my elbow because they now grind like a bag full of stones whenever I bend my arm.

For those who may be asking themselves why anyone would wait for almost a month before seeing a medical professional with the type of pain and loss of range of motion that I experienced, it is important to consider the implications of the potential treatment of that injury. I am quadriplegic, and the level of my injury means that I am paralyzed from the chest down and also have some loss of the use of my arms and hands.

Operating my wheelchair and driving my van both require the use of two arms, at least in my case. Having my left arm immobilized with a hard cast during a healing period would prevent me from operating the accelerator and brake control on my van or some of the assistive technology mounted on the left side of my wheelchair. That is something I will avoid at all costs.

My lifestyle is completely different than it was before my injury, and I often reflect on those relatively simpler times when it came to protecting or healing my body. Prior to my ski racing accident, most of my physical maladies involved a minor cold or the expenditure of time avoiding physical exertion when the repetitive stress of competing in sporting activities had strained a muscle. None of those problems required medical attention, unless we count a massage therapist working the lactic acid out of my leg muscles after a grueling triathlon, cycling or rowing race.

While the injury to my arm is a source of chronic pain at this time, I know that it will eventually heal even if not treated. The same cannot be said for some other common complications resulting from paralysis.

Prior to becoming paralyzed, I had no idea that the biggest health risks I would face in the future might be related to lack of physical exertion. The sedentary lifestyle may sound attractive to some people, as generations of workers have saved for and look forward to a leisurely retirement of sitting on the couch watching television or on the front porch watching the world go by. They may not consider themselves to be couch potatoes, but they fit the description.

Unfortunately, paralysis can mean that "idle way of life" is forced upon us; it is also a real danger when it comes to our longevity. I have learned this through personal experience, and through the lessons shared by many of my friends with different types and levels of paralysis.

In my opinion, it is secondary conditions that are the real danger, not the paralysis itself. To back up this argument, consider the following secondary conditions. Each can be a real problem, sometimes even life-threatening, by itself. Those of us living with paralysis deal with the limitations that presents on a daily basis, but we cannot afford to lose sight of the real dangers when paralysis restricts us in our mobility, stamina or abilities to self-diagnose for such things as skin conditions that might be present beyond our line of sight.

Being too sedentary can be a contributor to such common maladies as Edema, Deep Vein Thrombosis, Hemorrhoids, Pressure Sores/Decubitis Ulcers, Sepsis, Pneumonia, Insomnia Urinary Tract Infections, Sleep Apnea, Cholesterol, Hypertension Osteoporosis, and Obesity,which can contribute to the onset of Diabetes.

A full listing of every paralysis-related or sedentary-caused condition would likely be even longer. It makes sense that great effort should be taken to avoid, prevent (where possible), diagnose and discuss any of these complications with a qualified medical professional in a timely manner.

My oft-repeated (but seldom followed) New Year's resolution to lose weight has been completely ineffective without the dietary changes I promised myself. Carbohydrate loading was a good thing when I was competing in athletics prior to my injury, but every carb seems to find its way to my waistline nowadays. Hopefully the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables this time of year can convince me to change shopping habits by stocking up on items that are good for me instead of those that have the opposite effect.

What else can we do? Eliminating the sedentary aspect of our lifestyles would be a good step. Getting off the couch and out the door on a regular basis should become a habit, not a goal. Exercise, to whatever extent possible, is a plus; especially if it results in a little sweat and/or shortness of breath.

If you don't want to undertake this alone, there are possibilities that would not require the involvement of your circle of family and friends. Just head to the nearest mall or shopping center, and you will find many other people walking "laps" around the perimeter or wandering past storefronts while not carrying shopping bags. Those would be people who have decided that they don't want to become couch potatoes, and would be likely to welcome you rolling along with them.

© 2016 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.