Thumbnail image of: Spinal Cord and Vertebrae: Illustration

Spinal Cord Injury Discharge Information

What is a spinal cord injury?

A spinal cord injury is damage to the thick bundle of nerves that runs from the brain to the lower back. This bundle of nerves, called the spinal cord, is enclosed in the hollow center of the spine. The spinal cord carries messages to and from the brain and the nerves in the rest of the body. When the spinal cord is crushed, stretched, or torn, the nerves are damaged. If the spinal cord is just bruised or swollen, the nerves may be able to heal. However, if the nerves are crushed, cut, or torn, they are usually not able to heal. This means that the nerves will no longer be able to deliver signals from the brain to the part of the body that they control.

The symptoms of spinal cord injury depend on how much and what part of the spinal cord is damaged. Nerves in the lower part of the spinal cord control functions and feelings lower in your body, such as your legs. If the spinal cord is damaged in the middle or lower back you may be paralyzed and lose feeling the lower body and legs. Nerves in the upper end of the spinal cord control the lower part of the body as well as movement, feeling, and body functions higher in your body. For example, an injury in the neck may paralyze arms, legs, bladder, bowels, and even the muscles that control breathing.

How can I take care of myself when I go home?

You have survived a spinal cord injury. You will need to make lifestyle changes to help you learn to manage without the functions you may have lost due to the injury. You may recover some movement if the nerves are only bruised.


  • Your provider will give you a list of your medicines when you leave the hospital.
    • Know your medicines. Know what they look like, how much you should take each time, how often you should take them, and why you take each one.
    • Take your medicines exactly as your provider tells you to.
    • Carry a list of your medicines in your wallet or purse. Include any nonprescription medicines and supplements on the list.
  • You may need to continue a rehabilitation program after you leave the hospital to help you adjust to some of the functions you may have lost due to the injury. This may be done in an intensive rehabilitation center or at home. Most rehabilitation programs include:
    • Physical therapy to help you regain or maintain muscle strength and teach you ways to move safely
    • Occupational therapy to help you relearn ways to do the tasks that you previously did
    • Speech therapy to help you if you have problems with swallowing, speaking, or understanding words
    • Therapy may include skin care and training to help you control your bladder and bowels.
  • You may need help with daily activities.


  • Follow your provider’s instructions for follow-up appointments.
  • Keep appointments for any routine testing you may need.
  • Talk with your provider about any questions or fears you have.

Diet, Exercise, and Other Lifestyle Changes

  • Follow the treatment plan your healthcare provider prescribes.
  • If your spinal cord injury has not affected your ability to move, follow activity restrictions, such as not driving or operating machinery, as recommended by your healthcare provider or pharmacist, especially if you are taking pain medicines or muscle relaxants.
  • Get plenty of rest while you’re recovering. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
  • If your spinal cord injury has affected your ability to chew or swallow, you will need to make some changes in the foods you eat. Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietician to learn what foods you will be able to eat in a healthy diet.
  • Follow the exercise or rehabilitation treatment plan your healthcare provider prescribes. You may need to do special exercises to keep muscles from shrinking.
  • You may need to make changes to your home in order to use special equipment that will help you with your daily activities.
  • You may need to arrange for someone to be with you to help you with your daily activities.

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have new or worsening:

  • Trouble with muscle movements, such as swallowing, moving arms and legs
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Depression
  • Redness, bumps, blisters, or sores on your skin
  • Signs of infection around your surgical wound if you had surgery. These include:
    • The area around your wound is more red or painful
    • The wound area is very warm to touch
    • You have blood, pus, or other fluid coming from your wound area
    • You have a fever higher than 101.5° F (38.6° C)
    • You have chills or muscle aches
Developed by RelayHealth.
Acute Care Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-05-01
Last reviewed: 2014-04-24
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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