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Spinal Cord Rehabilitation

The following chart is a comparison of the specific level of SCI and the resulting rehabilitation potential. This chart is a guide, with general information only; impairments and rehabilitation potential can vary depending on the type and severity of SCI. Always consult your physician for more specific information based on your individual medical condition and injury. 

Level of injury

Possible impairment

Rehabilitation potential

C2 - C3

Usually fatal as a result of inability to breathe

Totally dependent for all care


Quadriplegia and breathing difficulty

Dependent for all cares; usually needs a ventilator


Quadriplegia with some shoulder and elbow function

May be able to feed self using assistive devices; usually can breathe without a ventilator, but may need other types of respiratory support


Quadriplegia with shoulder, elbow, and some wrist function

May be able to propel a wheelchair inside on smooth surfaces; may be able to help feed, groom, and dress self; dependent on others for transfers


Quadriplegia with shoulder, elbow, wrist, and some hand function

May be able to propel a wheelchair outside, transfer self, and drive a car with special adaptions; may be able to help with bowel and bladder programs


Quadriplegia with normal arm function; hand weakness

May be able to propel a wheelchair outside, transfer self, and drive a car with special adaptions; may be able to help with bowel and bladder programs

T1 - T6

Paraplegia with loss of function below mid-chest; full control of arms

Independent with self care and in wheelchair; able to be employed full time

T6 - T12

Paraplegia with loss of function below the waist; good control of torso

Good sitting balance; greater ability for operation of a wheelchair and athletic activities

L1 - L5

Paraplegia with varying degrees of muscle involvement in the legs

May be able to walk short distances with braces and assistive devices

Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation of the patient with a SCI begins during the acute treatment phase. As the patient's condition improves, a more extensive rehabilitation program is often begun.

The success of rehabilitation depends on many variables, including the following:

  • level and severity of the SCI
  • type and degree of resulting impairments and disabilities
  • overall health of the patient
  • family support

It is important to focus on maximizing the patient's capabilities at home and in the community. Positive reinforcement helps recovery by improving self-esteem and promoting independence.

The goal of SCI rehabilitation is to help the patient return to the highest level of function and independence possible, while improving the overall quality of life - physically, emotionally, and socially.

Areas covered in spinal cord injury rehabilitation programs may include:

Patient need:


Self-care skills, including activities of daily living (ADLs)

Feeding, grooming, bathing, dressing, toileting, and sexual functioning

Physical care

Support of heart and lung function, nutritional needs, and skin care

Mobility skills

Walking, transfers, and self-propelling a wheelchair

Respiratory care

Ventilator care, if needed; breathing treatments and exercises to promote lung function

Communication skills

Speech, writing, and alternative methods of communication

Socialization skills

Interacting with others at home and within the community

Vocational training

Work-related skills

Pain and muscle spasticity (increased muscle tone) management

Medications and alternative methods of managing pain and spasticity

Psychological counseling

Identifying problems and solutions for thinking, behavioral, and emotional issues

Family support

Assistance with adapting to lifestyle changes, financial concerns, and discharge planning


Patient and family education and training about SCI, home care needs, and adaptive techniques

The spinal cord injury rehabilitation team revolves around the patient and family and helps set short-and long-term treatment goals for recovery. Many skilled professionals are part of the spinal cord injury rehabilitation team, including any/all of the following:

  • neurologist/neurosurgeon
  • orthopaedist/orthopaedic surgeon
  • physiatrist
  • internists
  • rehabilitation nurse
  • social worker
  • physical therapist
  • occupational therapist
  • speech/language pathologist
  • psychologist/psychiatrist
  • recreation therapist
  • dietitian
  • vocational counselor
  • orthotist
  • case manager
  • respiratory therapist
  • chaplain

There are a variety of spinal cord injury treatment programs, including the following:

  • acute rehabilitation programs
  • subacute rehabilitation programs
  • long-term rehabilitation programs
  • transitional living programs
  • day-treatment programs
  • vocational rehabilitation programs