When a spinal cord injury disrupts the transmission of signals between the brain and body, spinal cord injury exercises can often help restore communication. Rehab exercises are essential for activating neuroplasticity, which is the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself and strengthen neural pathways.
When searching for spinal cord injury exercises to add to your home therapy regimen, it’s essential to find exercises most suitable to your level of ability. This article will discuss the benefits of spinal cord injury exercises and the various types you can use to promote recovery. Be sure to check with your therapist to make sure the exercises are safe for you.
Before diving in, let’s first go over the mechanisms behind spinal cord injury recovery.
Benefits of Exercise After Spinal Cord Injury
Every spinal cord injury is different, and the effects survivors may experience also vary. While damage caused by an injury may not be reversible depending on the level of injury, the spinal cord is capable of adapting through neuroplasticity (as long as the injury is not complete).
Neuroplasticity is the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself. Spared neural pathways are capable of strengthening existing pathways and learning new functions. Neuroplasticity is best activated through high repetition exercises, or massed practice.
However, this is usually in the cases of individuals with an incomplete SCI rather than a complete injury. Thus, the more spared neural pathways, the higher the chances of recovery.
Consistent repetition of weakened movements helps stimulate the spinal cord and promote neurological adaptations. Spinal cord injury exercises also focus on improving mobility by stretching tight muscles, strengthening weakened muscles, and moving the joints through full range of motion.
For instance, survivors may experience spasticity after spinal cord injury, which causes the muscles to tighten up. To help reduce spasticity it helps to stretch and practice range of motion exercises.
Range of motion exercises are also beneficial for improving blood flow and reducing the risk of pressure sores even if your spinal cord injury is complete. Furthermore, the more you engage in spinal cord injury exercises, the greater your chances of improving mobility.
Spinal cord injury exercises are undoubtedly beneficial, but now you may be wondering, what type of exercises should you practice?
Passive Spinal Cord Injury Exercises
While every spinal cord injury has different functional outcomes, most spinal cord injury survivors can practice passive range of motion exercises.
Passive range of motion exercises do not require the survivor to exert a lot of energy. Instead, a therapist or caregiver helps move the survivor’s body for them. Individuals who have more control of their movements should try to actively perform range of motion exercises on their own as much as they can.
Passive range of motion exercises challenges you to move your joints through their full range of motion. This helps prevent stiffness and promote circulation in the paralyzed or weakened areas of the body. Try practicing passive range of motion exercises at least once daily to minimize tightness in the joints and stimulate the nervous system.
Here is a video with examples of various SCI passive range of motion exercises you can try with a therapist and/or caregiver. Be mindful of doing these exercises on your own if you are still building up strength to avoid overworking yourself.
Gently move your forearm toward your upper arm as much as you can without pain. The angle created between your upper and lower arm is the flexion. Then extend your arm and repeat. This exercise also includes extension, supination, and pronation.
For this exercise, start from a seated position and alternate lifting your knees as if you are marching. Along with hip flexion, this exercise also serves as extension, abduction, adduction, and rotation.
While laying down, slowly move your legs upwards until your knees are nearly straight. Slowly bring your legs back down into your starting position. You should feel the muscles on the front of your thighs engage when doing this exercise.
Ask your therapist or caregiver to take over for the remainder of the range of motion exercises if you tire out quickly. Your endurance should improve over time with more consistent practice.
Lower Extremity Spinal Cord Injury Exercises
There are various exercises you can do to strengthen the muscles in your legs and improve mobility. Additionally, SCI leg exercises help reduce muscle atrophy and stimulate adaptive changes in the spinal cord.
However, before engaging in leg exercises for SCI it’s important to warm up and stretch. The following video demonstrates various leg stretches you can try using a strap, resistance band, or large towel.
Spinal cord injury can also affect the ability to feel, therefore survivors need to be extra careful and pull gently when stretching to avoid injury.
Once you’re warmed up, try these helpful leg exercises for spinal cord injury:
While also laying down, you can point your toes down so that the ankle is extended. Then raise your feet upwards towards the knees to flex the ankles. This exercise mimics the motions the ankles create when walking.
Knees to Chest
Place one hand on the upper leg just above your knee and the opposite foot. Bend one knee in so that it’s reaching towards your chest. Then bring your foot down and straighten the knee.
Straight Leg Lifts
Lay down with your legs straightened and lift one leg without bending at the knees. When the leg is as high as it can go, hold for a few seconds. Bring the leg back down and alternate with the other leg. Try to engage your core while doing this exercise to avoid putting undue stress on the lower back.
Sit at the edge of your seat with both feet on the ground, then alternate lifting your knees one at a time. This leg exercise allows survivors to practice walking without added pressure on their joints.
Upper Extremity Spinal Cord Injury Exercises
Spinal cord injury survivors with cervical or high thoracic level injuries may often experience weakness in the hands. Fortunately, various hand and arm exercises can help improve fine motor skills and reduce weakness after spinal cord injury.
Here are some upper extremity spinal cord injury exercises you can try:
For this exercise, put your arms out to the side so that your body makes a “T” shape. Then move your arms in a circular motion going forward and backward. You can alternate between making large circular motions or smaller ones.
Using one or both hands, alternate tapping the tips of each finger to the thumb. When doing this exercise you can also add hand clenches and curl the fingers in. Hold a few seconds or as long as you can and straighten the fingers back out.
Hold one arm out in front of you with your palm dancing down. Then use your other hand to grab the palm and pull it back up.
Lay your hand flat on a tabletop or wall. Then practice spreading the fingers apart and bringing them back together.
While these hand therapy exercises may seem simple, they are extremely effective. However, practicing the same movements can get boring and cause you to lose motivation. To help you keep you motivated and engaged you can use gamified neurorehabilitation devices.
For example, MusicGlove is a hand therapy device that combines music, gaming, and hand therapy exercises to help you stay engaged and practice high repetitions from the comfort of your own home. MusicGlove has been clinically proven to boost hand function in just 2 weeks!
Spinal Cord Injury Exercises for the Core
Core exercises after spinal cord injury are also essential because they help stabilize the trunk for better balance and posture.
The following video will guide you through some wheelchair-friendly exercises to strengthen the core. Before practicing these exercises, always check that the brakes on your wheelchair are set.
Speak with your therapist before engaging in some of these core exercises if you still have spinal precautions, or are certain movements that need to be avoided after your SCI.
Back Extensor Isometric Hold
Sit at the edge of the seat and lean back against the chair. Hold for a few seconds or as long as you can and use your core muscles to sit up straight again.
Seated Trunk Extension
While sitting in a chair, slowly lean forward as far as you comfortably can and try reaching your hands to the floor. Then, use your back muscles to slowly sit back up.
Start by laying down and keep your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Try to maintain your shoulders and upper body firmly on the floor. Tighten the abdominal muscles and move your trunk in large circular motions clockwise and counterclockwise.
Engaging in Spinal Cord Injury Exercises
The best way to improve mobility after SCI is to consistently practice spinal cord injury exercises. This helps stimulate neuroplasticity in undamaged regions of the spinal cord and strengthen the pathways that control movement.
Every spinal cord injury is different and every survivor will have different functional outcomes so try not to feel discouraged if an exercise is too difficult. A therapist can help you adjust and provide SCI exercises for your level of mobility.
We hope this article has inspired you to engage in spinal cord injury exercises to promote recovery.
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