​Psychosocial Adjustment After a Spinal Cord Injury Is Critical for Healthy Outcomes

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on September 21, 2020 # Health

By guest blogger Lauren Presutti

Life is unpredictable. Perhaps nobody quite understands that sentiment better than a person with a spinal cord injury. When unexpected trauma happens to the body, your life is turned upside down. You may experience horrific shock and loud ambulances, then frightening hospital rooms, doctors hovering, and intense medical conversations. You may receive outpouring love and support from others who bring hope for recovery. Your life may become centered on reclaiming normalcy, and you may feel determined to get your life back. But for many people with spinal cord injuries, leaving the hospital and returning home brings several psychosocial changes that are sometimes overshadowed by a primary focus on medical attention.

While medical recovery is fundamental to healing, attending to one’s psychosocial needs after the injury is also critical for healthy outcomes. You may feel hopeful or excited to leave the hospital and return to the comforts of home. Still, many people also experience sadness, grief, or even depression when we face the real world after injury. Whenever we experience life-changing events – certainly those as traumatic as spinal cord injuries – it’s common to feel overwhelmed and unsure when adjusting to a “new normal.” Sustaining profound physical injury will likely become emotional trauma that may linger for weeks, months, or even years. For many people, adjusting to paralysis can be a lifelong process.man in wheelchair in car trunk

In the beginning, an adjustment may require learning what it means to have a spinal cord injury. This may involve educating yourself and your family on the medical considerations and need for physical, occupational, or other rehabilitative therapy. People may need to learn about disability culture and identity, accessibility in the community, school or workplace accommodations, adaptive recreation, wheelchair-accessible transportation, and other nuances of life with paralysis. During this time, grief should be normalized, and individuals should focus on being gentle with themselves as they experience feelings associated with loss of ability, such as anger, frustration, or sadness. Adjusting to a different level of independence in the context of physical changes in one’s body and the environment will take time. Relying on social support and utilizing mental health services can be beneficial through the process.

As time goes on, an adjustment may also include changing roles within one’s social system. Relationships with family and friends may be different after injury. For example, you may be treated differently from others who have misconceptions about spinal cord injury or disability in general. Some people may no longer be able to return to their same employment setting as before paralysis. Some people in recovery may need to find new ways to play with their children, engage in their previous sports teams, or be intimate with their partners. Creating new, accessible ways to experience your life may be difficult and can require a great deal of redefining lifestyles and expectations. When everything feels uncertain, learning from others who have successfully navigated life after a spinal cord injury can be transformative for a healthy adjustment. Peer-to-peer support can be life-enhancing for many people.

Although every individual’s experience recovering from a spinal cord injury will be unique, understanding the psychosocial changes can be helpful in the coping process. Living a meaningful life after injury requires embracing changes, understanding limitations, identifying opportunities for independence, learning to establish your purpose again, and holding onto a sense of hope and determination. With this in mind, your psychosocial needs are equally as important as your medical needs. If you, or the people close to you, are struggling to adjust to the changes after injury, connect with your treatment team to inquire about mental health services. Speak up about your struggles and remember that you are not alone in feeling this way. Connect with spinal cord organizations and online communities to learn from others who have been in your shoes before. Don’t let the expectations or misconceptions of others hold you back.

Spinal cord injuries are traumatic to both the physical body and mind, but with the right support and resources, many people can heal both physically and mentally to lead positive, fulfilling lives after injury. You are more than your spinal cord injury, and you have the power to decide how your healing process will unfold. Incorporating a focus on your psychosocial adjustment will be vital to your recovery.

To learn about River Oaks Psychology, visit www.riveroakspsychology.com and follow River Oaks Psychology on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Lauren Presutti is a psychotherapist and advocate for individuals and families affected by disabilities of all types. Presutti Counseling provides mental health services while Presutti Advocacy provides consultation and advocacy support services. Born with Muscular Dystrophy and using a wheelchair throughout her life, Lauren is passionate about helping others overcome barriers and reach their fullest potential. Lauren also enjoys writing, speaking, and providing education on subjects relating to mental health and disability advocacy.

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.