Just for teens: Adjusting to a spinal cord injury

For a teen, spinal cord injuries can seem like the biggest setback in the world. But there’s a lot of reason for hope!

Your spinal cord is a big bundle of nerves that runs down the middle of your back, through the bones of your spinal column. It carries signals from your brain to the rest of your body and from your body to your brain.

A spinal cord can be injured in several different ways, including from a fall or while playing sports. The most common causes are car accidents, though alcohol often plays a part in spinal cord injuries.

teen spinal cord injuries

Help for teen spinal cord injuries

Someone with a spinal cord injury loses all or some feeling and movement below the site of the injury. For example, if your spinal cord is injured just above your hips, you might lose feeling (sensory loss) and movement (paralysis) in your hips, legs, and feet.

If you have a spinal injury, you may need surgery, physical therapy, and other forms of treatment. You likely will work with a treatment team that includes rehabilitation specialists, who will help you build your strength and learn some new ways to do things. They also can help you learn how to take good care of your body. If you’ll be using a wheelchair, for example, you may learn how to avoid skin sores that can come from sitting for a long time.

Of course, if you have a spinal cord injury, it’s not just your body that’s affected. Your emotions have taken a big hit too. People’s reactions range from relief that their accident wasn’t worse to fear about how their lives may change. Whatever your reactions, your treatment team can help you deal with all that too. Tell them, your parents, or other people you trust how you feel — and what they can do to help.

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Adjusting takes time

Adjustment — getting used to, and making changes to handle something new — is a big part of dealing with a spinal cord injury. Each person who is injured needs time to adapt in his or her own way. For instance, some people may not realize how serious their injury is right away.

For teens, coping with changes after an injury can be even harder, because you also are already coping with the change from childhood to adulthood. Keep in mind that anger and grief are normal, but do not let your feelings keep you from taking care of yourself. Make sure to do what the doctor tells you to do and try to focus on your therapy.

Adjusting to your injury likely will be easier if you:

  1. Set some personal goals, such as working hard in each therapy session to gain strength or getting back into a club at school.
  2. Make an effort to stay in touch with your old friends and try making new friends at your physical therapy sessions.
  3. Try your hardest to talk through any problems that come up between you and your family members since your relationships may change during this time.
The future

Yes, you will have to adjust to new experiences throughout your life with this injury, but as tough as it can be, dealing with the different challenges that come your way will make you strong — and will really make you shine! Had you hoped to be a doctor someday before your injury? Or hoped to have a family?

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Well, your long-term goals may not have to change! Talk to your parents or guardians, health care team, and teachers about what you need to feel more comfortable at school so that you can do well. And, most importantly, follow the advice of your health care team about taking care of your health on a daily basis.

Living with spinal cord injury: Some questions answered

Dr Jeffrey Rabin, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at the Children’s National Medical Center, offers this advice on living with spinal cord injury:

Q. What can teens do to feel more comfortable in a hospital or rehabilitation center?

A. Teens should know that a hospital is not a pleasant place, and that recovery is going to be hard work. It can help to trust your health care team members — they always have your best interests in mind. And, they will do what they can to make your stay as nice as possible.

Q. How can teens make the recovery process smoother?

A. Healing after a spinal cord injury is hard on your body and mind. There is also a lot to learn about the other health issues that can go along with spinal cord injuries, but it will get easier to manage these in time. Listen to your doctor and other health care team members when they teach you how to care for yourself.

Q. What should patients ask their doctors?

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A. Ask your doctor about doing the things you enjoy. He or she wants to hear you ask if you can still go camping and play sports!

Q. What can make it easier for teens with spinal cord injuries to deal with friends and family?

A. Let people know that you are still the same person, only now you are dealing with a medical problem. You can tell them that everyone has a medical problem at some point in their lives and that you are dealing with yours early in life.

Q. What should teens know about spinal cord injury research that is going on?

A. It is important to be aware of how serious your injury is. At the same time, there is a lot of spinal cord injury research taking place and it is okay to hope for a cure for paralysis someday. The best thing you can do is focus on moving ahead and living life with the injury you have, in the healthiest way possible.

Q. Can teen girls with spinal cord injuries have babies?

A. Girls can absolutely become mothers someday! The doors are still wide open for your future goals — whether those goals are to have a family or do anything else that you put your mind to.

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