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Numbness & Tingling After Spinal Cord Injury: What It Means & How to Promote Recovery

After a spinal cord injury, survivors may experience changes in sensation such as numbness and/or tingling below the level of injury. While this can raise concern, tingling after a spinal cord injury can sometimes be a sign of recovery. Changes in sensation should be taken seriously though, because numbness or tingling in the body can increase the risk of autonomic dysreflexia, a potentially dangerous condition.

This article will discuss what causes changes in sensation after spinal cord injury, how it can sometimes be a sign of recovery, and effective management techniques.

What Causes Tingling and/or Numbness After Spinal Cord Injury?

Loss of sensation is one of the most common secondary effects of spinal cord injury. When we touch or feel something, sensory information travels through the spinal cord to the brain, where the brain then sends signals back down to the body. Sometimes these signals help form a movement-based reaction if needed.

However, when a spinal cord injury interrupts this process, it can be difficult for the brain to process sensory stimuli. This can result in complete loss of sensation below the level of injury (numbness) or impair sensation and cause tingling or altered sensations (paresthesia).

Numbness refers to a loss of sensation and can occur when the nerves responsible for sending sensory signals to the brain are damaged or disrupted after a spinal cord injury. While this can be concerning, the presence of tingling after spinal cord injury is not always a negative sign.

Let’s take a look at what impaired sensation after spinal cord injury could mean.

What Does Tingling After Spinal Cord Injury Mean?

survivor experiencing tingling and numbness after spinal cord injury in the arm

The inability to process sensory stimuli can make it difficult to protect your body from any potentially harmful stimuli. For example, if you touch a hot stove, signals will be sent from the brain through the spinal cord to initiate a reaction in your muscles. This reaction is supposed to help prevent burning or any other injury. Therefore, complete or partial loss of sensation after a spinal cord injury can increase the risk of injury.

However, when a survivor begins to feel tingling or numbness after spinal cord injury, it can actually be an indicator that at least some sensory communication exists. Thus, tingling in the arms or legs after spinal cord injury can be viewed as a positive sign of recovery because it shows that at least some sensory stimuli is reaching the brain.

While numbness may indicate a more serious condition, tingling in certain parts of the body below the level of injury can indicate that the neural pathways in that muscle are being restored – which is great news for recovery!

Restoring function and movement is heavily dependent on the level of the spinal cord injury, intensity of rehabilitation, and whether the injury was complete (spine fully severed) or incomplete (spine partially severed). Usually, individuals with incomplete spinal cord injuries have higher chances of recovery because there are unaffected neural pathways within the spinal cord remaining. 

In fact, tingling is only possible with an incomplete SCI, because complete SCI survivors have no feeling (numbness) below the level of injury. Therefore it’s important to continue training the areas where you may feel even the slightest sensations to maximize the chances of recovering sensation. 

Through specific therapies, you can help strengthen the spared neural pathways in the spinal cord that relay sensory information to the brain. Thus, if you are experiencing tingling in your affected limbs after an incomplete SCI, try to think of it as a sign of hope for recovery.

Managing Changes in Sensation After Spinal Cord Injury

survivor experiencing numbness after spinal cord injury in her legs

Different types or rehabilitation methods can help minimize numbness and tingling after spinal cord injury. It’s important to note that these are management techniques that can help with the symptoms, but they may not address the root cause.

Management techniques for numbness after spinal cord injury can include:

Autonomic Dysreflexia

Survivors who experience loss of sensation after a spinal cord injury (especially those with a T-6 level injury or higher) are at risk of developing autonomic dysreflexia. This is a condition in which the autonomic functions of the body overreact or produce involuntary actions.

Individuals with autonomic dysreflexia after a spinal cord injury may experience:

  • Abnormal high levels of blood pressure
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Severe headaches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or chest pain

Numbness after an SCI can increase the chances of triggering autonomic dysreflexia because it becomes more challenging for individuals to notice stimuli below the level of injury, such as a full bladder or tight clothing.

Therefore, understanding potential triggers is essential to lower the risk of autonomic dysreflexia. This can include wearing loose clothing, avoiding extreme temperatures, evacuating your bladder regularly, checking catheters, and inspecting the skin routinely for pressure sores and bruises.

 Safety Tips

If you are experiencing numbness after spinal cord injury, being aware of your surroundings can help you stay safe and prevent further injury. As previously mentioned, loss of sensation can put you at a greater risk for potentially harmful stimuli. Therefore, it’s important to keep the following safety tips in mind: 

  • Keep a lookout for sharp objects
  • Be extra careful when cooking and minimize the use of stoves, microwaves, or any other household appliance
  • Ask a caregiver to reposition you often to lower the risk of pressure sores or ulcers.

Pressure sores are a common result of impaired motor control and sensation. Sensation provides the urge to move around and motor control allows the body to move. When either function is impaired, the skin becomes vulnerable to ulcers. Thus, it’s extremely important for a loved one to help move your body for you.

Spontaneous Recovery

survivor in therapy to help reduce tingling and numbness after spinal cord injury

During the first 6-9 months after an injury the spinal cord enters heightened levels of neuroplasticity, the central nervous system’s ability to rewire itself. Neuroplasticity strengthens the existing neural pathways in the spinal cord and creates new ones, allowing for better communication between the brain and body. The better the communication, the more the brain will be able to receive sensory information and process that stimuli, potentially reducing tingling and/or numbness. 

Large improvements are seen during “spontaneous recovery” but a plateau often occurs about 12-18 months post injury. However, this does not mean recovery completely stops. It continues as long as rehabilitation is pursued actively. Rehabilitation can include a variety of therapies and management techniques, which is crucial to maximize the chances of full recovery after spinal cord injury.

Acupuncture

Though there is minimal research available for numbness and tingling, studies have shown that acupuncture can help relieve neuropathy, which includes weakness, numbness, and pain from nerve damage (commonly felt in the hands and feet). Some individuals with numbness after spinal cord injury may also experience neuropathic pain, making acupuncture an attractive way to help stimulate neuroplasticity

In fact, studies showed that SCI survivors who received one treatment of acupuncture daily for 6 days had significant reductions in pain and numbness. A more targeted approach is known as electroacupuncture where a small electric current is passed through pairs of acupuncture needles. While electroacupuncture focuses on improving movement after SCI, it can potentially help with sensation, especially if your injury was incomplete. The best way to find out is to try, just be sure to consult with your doctor or therapist.

Electrical Stimulation 

Lastly, a management technique that may help with numbness and tingling after spinal cord injury is electrical stimulation. There are many different types of electrical stimulation available, and it’s essential to talk to your therapist to discuss which options are suitable for you. They can also provide any necessary training on how to use an at-home e-stim device. 

For example, during Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS), electrodes are placed on the surface of the skin to stimulate the muscles and nerves. While no studies have directly found a link between TENS and numbness after spinal cord injury, the option could be worth exploring to help stimulate neuroplasticity. TENS has also been shown to help with neuropathy.

Understanding Numbness & Tingling After Spinal Cord Injury

Many survivors experience numbness and tingling after spinal cord injury. While loss of sensation can raise concern and increase the risk of autonomic dysreflexia and other complications, tingling may actually be a sign of recovery. Tingling indicates that there is at least some neural activity remaining, which increases the chances of recovery through neuroplasticity. 

Talk to your therapist to discuss which options are most suitable for you, such as electrical stimulation or electroacupuncture. We hope this article helped you understand tingling and numbness after spinal cord injury, and the most effective management techniques to overcome these effects.

The post Numbness & Tingling After Spinal Cord Injury: What It Means & How to Promote Recovery appeared first on Flint Rehab.

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