Ageing and spinal cord injury

Today people who sustain a spinal cord injury (SCI) when they are young can expect to live a long life however as they get older, they can develop problems associated with ageing. As our bodies age, muscles get smaller and weaker, wear and tear on joints can cause pain and stiffness and skin gets thinner, more easily damaged, and takes longer to heal. These changes cause problems for all people as they age but can have a more significant impact on the way a person with a spinal cord injury functions.

Many wheelchair users put more strain on the joints of the upper limbs compared to their able bodied counterparts due to the years of transferring, propelling manual wheelchairs and lifting them in and out of the car, not to mention all the usual day to day tasks we use our arms for.

As you age with a SCI you may experience:

  • Shoulder and upper limb pain
  • More difficulty transferring
  • Reduced mobility – either in your wheelchair or walking
  • Trouble with daily care tasks
  • Skin problems and pressure ulcers
  • Weight gain
  • Other pain

This can often happen at a much younger age after living for many years with a SCI although not everyone with a SCI will experience signs of ageing at the same rate. Factors such as genetics, age at the time of SCI, weight, life style, level of SCI and presence of other diseases need to be taken into account. 

Professionals who have experience working with people with SCI find that these problems can occur as early as 50 years old or even younger if they have been living with their SCI for 20 years or so.  Physiotherapists, doctors, nurses and occupational therapists with experience can offer you advice to consider, as can other people who have had similar experiences.

Your goal should be to try to do what you can and take advice that will help you maintain your function for as long as possible so you can remain as independent as possible throughout your lifetime. Using more, or different, equipment may help you continue to do things on your own and could help you preserve energy for other things. Careful planning can reduce repetition of tasks and also help to reduce further strain on painful joints and also save energy.

What could help you maintain your function over the years?

  • Seek help early if you have any problems with pain or pressure ulcers
  • Go for your regular health check ups even if you are well at the time
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle in regards to eating and exercise from the start
  • If you are finding daily tasks hard, review the way you do things and consider changing something to make things easier