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Surviving a severe spinal cord injury: How to live for a better outcome

September 24, 2013

When someone suffers a severe spinal cord injury that ultimately leaves them paralyzed for life, they may endure a range of unsettling emotions. These emotions can include shock, disbelief, denial, anger and depression. But with the help of a positive attitude and supportive environment, patients can begin to accept their condition and desire to work hard to make the most of their situation.

How common are spinal cord injuries?

Spinal cord injuries afflict about 12,000 Americans every year. Their causes, ranked in order of prevalence are: auto crashes, falls, violence (including gunshot wounds), and sports injuries. Just more than 80 percent of victims are male. That percentage has dwindled only slightly in recent years, and experts say it reflects the tendency of more men than women to be involved in risk-taking activity, including high-speed and/or impaired driving, gunplay, and the kinds of sports that can contribute to traumatic spinal injuries.

The anatomy of a spinal cord injury

The spinal cord itself is a bundle of nerves that travels from the brain stem down the middle of the back. From there, it branches off to dozens of nerve roots, which branch out to smaller nerves going to every part of the body. These nerves register pain and other sensations, and carry commands from the brain for a body part to move, or an organ such as the heart or liver to do its job, without a person’s conscious thought.

A spinal cord injury that disrupts the flow of these signals is a medical emergency. In many cases, a traumatic injury does not actually split the spinal cord. Most often, the injury fractures one or more vertebrae (the roughly doughnut-shaped bones that make up the spine and surround the spinal cord). Fragments of bone can then tear into spinal cord tissue or press into nerve roots. While spinal cord tissue cannot regenerate or heal, if the pressure on the cord or a nerve root can be relieved, the patient’s condition may improve.

A personal look at spinal cord injuries

Robert Melia knows full well the emotional upheaval that accompanies such a life-changing accident. He suffered a severe spinal cord injury when a wave snapped his neck while swimming off of Central Florida’s Atlantic coast about 25 years ago. While in the hospital after his injury, Melia was convinced that doctors were too pessimistic about his case when they told him he would never walk again, especially because he was briefly able to move his legs and feet after being pulled from the water following his accident. It took time for him to come to grips with the full extent and permanence of his injury.

“I was hoping for more recovery,” Melia says. But Melia, now 46 years old, has concentrated his understanding of the obstacles faced by disabled people into a commitment to help others like himself. As director of the Greater Orlando Spinal Cord Injury Network, Melia is an advocate for his peers’ interests, and has a hands-on role in helping to oversee their care at Orlando Health from his office at the Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute, where he has worked for more than 10 years.

Rehabilitation treatment at the Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute

The Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute helps people with traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries, stroke victims, orthopedic patients, amputees and others with physical therapy, exercises and other programs. Between hospital patients nearby and those who come regularly as outpatients, Melia said the institute serves about 50 people at a time.

To make an appointment at the Orlando Health Rehabilitation Institute, call 321.841.4161