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Spinal Cord Injuries and Massage Therapy

Taylor Paganini, LMT O.T

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) conducts spinal cord research in its laboratories at the National Institute of Health (NIH) and also supports additional research through grants to major research institutions across the country. Advances in research are giving doctors and patients hope that repairing injured spinal cords is a reachable goal (yes!). Advances in basic research are also being matched by progress in clinical research, especially in understanding the kinds of physical rehabilitation that works best to restore function. Some of the more promising rehabilitation techniques are helping spinal cord injury patients become more mobile.

An estimated 12,500 spinal cord injuries occur in the United States each year, leaving those injured, their families and friends to cope with the aftermath of the catastrophe. For many, navigating the challenges of the health care system can be very overwhelming and discouraging. And because of this, I believe an educated patient is better equipped to advocate for his or her needs and interests. An education in spinal cord anatomy will help patients better understand what their doctor is saying, encourage patients to ask more thorough questions, and be able to detect medical errors before endangering their health.

What is Your Spinal Cord and What is a Spinal Cord Injury?

To put it in terms easily understood, our Spinal Cord is a long, fragile tube like structure that begins at the end of our brainstem and continues down almost to the bottom of our spine. The spinal cord consists of nerves that carry incoming and outgoing messages between your brain and the rest of the body. It is also the center for reflexes such as the knee jerk reflex in which your doctor has always performed at your annual physical since you were a child. Just as the skull protects the brain, our 33 vertebrae (spine) protect our spinal cord. When there is damage to the spinal cord or the nerves, it causes a disruption of the incoming and outgoing messages from the brain to the rest of the body. This often causes permanent changes in strength, sensation and other bodily functions below the sight of injury.

Now, when we are talking about spinal cord injuries, there are two main categories: Complete and Incomplete. Complete SCIs are the most serious and occur when the spinal cord is injured, eradicating the brain's ability to send messages below the injury site, causing paralysis. For example, an injury to the lumbar spine (lower back), can lead to paralysis below the waist while maintaining function in your upper body and arms also known as paraplegia.

Incomplete SCIs commonly result from compression or damage afflicted to the spinal cord that reduces the brain's ability to send signals below the injury site. Because of the partially-compromised condition of the spinal cord, incomplete SCIs vary drastically from person to person. Some sensory and motor functions may be slightly compromised in some or nearly reduced in others. Additionally, some incomplete injuries result in Triplegia, or the loss of sensation and movement in one arm and both legs. Incomplete SCIs are increasingly common, thanks in part to better treatment and increased knowledge about how to respond—and how not to respond—due to improved spinal cord injury research. These injuries now account for more than 60% of spinal cord injuries, which means we're making real progress toward better treatment for SCI rehabilitation.

A partial list of common spinal cord injury symptoms includes

  • Varying degrees of paralysis, including tetraplegia/quadriplegia, and paraplegia

  • Difficulty breathing; the need to be on a respirator

  • Problems with bladder and bowel function

  • Frequent infections; the likelihood of this increases if you are on a feeding or breathing tube

  • Bedsores

  • Chronic pain

  • Headaches

  • Changes in mood or personality

  • Loss of libido or sexual function

  • Loss of fertility

  • Nerve pain

  • Chronic muscle pain

  • Pneumonia (more than half of cervical spinal cord injury survivors struggle with bouts of pneumonia)

~And because every individual is unique, it is most likely that their symptoms will be as well.

What are the benefits of Massage Therapy for Spinal Cord Injuries?

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) patients must face a number of challenges on the road to recovery and rehabilitation. For most, it can mean making significant changes to their lifestyles. Recovery might include switching to a healthier diet, discovering new ways to exercise, and employing a whole multitude of therapies in order to help ease their condition. Having a regular massage following a spinal cord injury has been proven to provide a number of benefits to patients. It has been shown to help improve circulation, impact positively on muscle tone, improve skin elasticity, and even relieve pain. The benefits of massage for spinal cord injury patients range from simple relaxation and stress relieving to aiding physical improvements and even helping to improve mental health. Here are some of the most proven benefits of massage therapy for people suffering with a Spinal Cord Injury.

  • For many SCI patients, particularly those with complete paralysis, loss of muscle tone can be a huge challenge. Connected to muscle tone is range of motion and the two tend to work together. Improving the amount that you can move may also benefit your future prognosis and your ability to recover from a spinal cord injury. (yay!)

  • Pain reduction is another area that massage can often help with. Many individuals with spinal cord injuries suffer from chronic pain issues and research has shown that massage techniques alleviate this, improving quality of life and perception all around.

  • Massage is also good at improving the circulation, something that is certainly important for those suffering from spinal cord injuries. Those who are wheelchair bound, for example, will find that blood flow to the legs and feet decreases and massage is able to improve this.

  • One overall impact of massage following a spinal cord injury is that it boosts serotonin levels and this can have a positive effect on mental health. A study with SCI patients found that massage is useful in reducing depression and anxiety.

  • It’s not just the affected areas that massage can help with. If you are suffering from an overuse injury, massage can assist in repairing the damage and relaxing and strengthening the muscles.

“It is not the strongest of the species who survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one who is most adaptable to Change.” -Charles Darwin

Spinal cord Injury awareness month is the perfect time to try and help raise awareness of the importance of spinal cord injuries and the ongoing need for research. To learn more about how we can raise awareness and support the research for SCIs please be sure to visit this website:

Taylor Paganini  L.M.T, O.T is certified in Myofascial Release Technique, Trigger Point Therapy, AMMA, and Prenatal massage. Also certified in flame Cupping. Her techniques are to help unblock energy in the body and bring better mobility and functionality to the muscular and nervous systems in order to reconnect the mind/body experience. 


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