The 5 Key Members of a Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Team

by Serious Injury Law on September 4, 2013

The settlement funding from successful personal injury litigation should cover the cost of the rehabilitation process, but what types of therapy are required after a spinal cord injury? Read on to find out.

The road to recovery after a spinal cord injury (SCI) is a long and arduous one.

When a person’s abilities to move and function become so suddenly and severely diminished, it is of paramount importance to find a way to improve their condition as much as possible. This is so that they can live their life with the optimum level of function and experience each day with the least amount of disruption.

It is for this reason that a spinally injured person undertakes a rehabilitation program. However, a great level of strength and determination is required from the injured person in order to achieve discernible results.

The injured person does not make this journey alone. In the majority of cases, their rehabilitation program is funded by a successful spinal injury claim, and requires a multi-disciplinary team of experts to provide separate specialist therapies, whilst all working together.

A good serious injury lawyer will facilitate such resources required for rehabilitation, and will be able to appoint a highly qualified case manager. Together, they will use the settlement funding (personal injury compensation) to put in place the best possible private care team.

The exact number of therapists differs from case to case. However, some of the main key members of a spinal cord injury rehabilitation team are as follows (also check out this page from CFG Law outlining different types of spinal injury and possible steps forward – ) :-


The team will be organised and led by a physiatrist; a fully qualified doctor and medical professional who is either a DO i.e. a doctor of osteopathic medicine, or an MD – a doctor of medicine.

Physiatrists take a holistic view of their patient and their condition, assessing all aspects in order to be able to fully co-ordinate and organise a complete and comprehensive rehabilitation regime for them.

In a role that focuses on their patient’s musculoskeletal system, physiatrists pay particular attention to the injured person’s lost ability to move, as well as their reduced – or perhaps completely – lost body functions.

As physiatrists do not perform surgery on their patients, various therapies are identified and accommodated in a manageable routine that helps the patient to restore as much function as possible, and reduces any levels of pain that they may be experiencing.

Due to the fact that every spinal cord injury is different, rehabilitation programs differ from person to person and from injury to injury. As time progresses, the physiatrist periodically monitors their patient’s improvements – or their decline, unfortunate as it may be – and adjusts the rehabilitation regime accordingly.


A physiotherapist (also sometimes referred to as a physical therapist) is not to be confused with a physiatrist. Whereas a physiatrist is a fully qualified doctor, a physiotherapist can prescribe neither surgical procedures nor medicinal remedies, and is trained in kinesiology (the science of human movement) in order to provide therapy via exercise.

Physiotherapy is one of the most important therapies a spinally injured person undertakes on their road to recovery. The physiotherapist works with the patient to provide expert professional assistance that helps to strengthen vital muscle groups and improve their motor skills.

However, the importance of this type of therapy goes beyond the treatment room, as physiotherapy is an inclusive therapy; the physiotherapists work to teach the patient and their family exercises that can be undertaken at home. It is a communal therapy, also beneficial on a psychological level as its continuous inclusivity promotes the best level of recovery possible.

Whilst initially, the physiotherapist’s work has the potential to be painful for the patient, the aim is to improve their functionality so that pain is reduced to more manageable levels, or in the best case scenarios, where there was formally pain, it is now completely removed.

If the patient has experienced an incomplete spinal injury i.e. where the spinal cord is not completely severed and function remains in the extremities, particularly the legs, then the physiotherapist may incorporate treadmill training and gait training as part of the rehabilitation program.

A physiotherapist who specialises in SCIs also helps the patient with any secondary conditions that may arise as a result of their injury. For example, they may provide bladder management advice as well as coping strategies for potentially life threatening conditions such as autonomic dysreflexia.

Occupational therapist

The role of an occupational therapist is to promote the skills that help the SCI patient with daily living with their new condition. It is a focus on the day to day activities that allow someone who has suffered from a severely debilitating spinal injury to live as independently as possible.

For example, the occupational therapist will help the patient to ‘re-learn’, or adapt the ways in which they are able to complete many of the tasks that most people take for granted. This usually includes personal hygiene tasks such as washing and bathing, brushing teeth and so forth; a particularly useful skillset for those with diminished hand and arm function.

The work of an occupational therapists extends to feeding and drinking; dressing; coordination and balance; as well as the teaching of how to use any necessary adaptations and equipment that the spinally injured person may now need. Promotion of good posture is of paramount importance, especially for those who make considerable use of wheelchairs.

Occupational therapists also provide assistance with equipment that helps the spinally injured person to communicate. This is particularly useful for those with diminished speech capabilities after suffering from tetraplegia.

All these skills are the bedrock of functionality, and the aim of the occupational therapist is to help the patient to be able to complete as many of their day to day tasks.

Psychologist/Mental health therapist

Given the incredibly debilitating effects of SCIs and their resulting reduced function, mental health therapy can very often be a vital part of an injured person’s rehabilitation.

Depression is quite common, so a therapist is very often on hand to try to help people through this difficult period.

A common form of psychotherapy that is used is called cognitive behavior therapy. It is a ‘talking therapy’ where the therapist engages with the patient about all aspects of their lives; be it their feelings about themselves, others or their environment.

The therapist also discusses the effect that these feelings have on their actions, and in turn the effect that their actions then have on their feelings.

Social workers

Once the injured person has left the acute care of the hospital and is back at home, social workers are on hand to provide any ongoing assistance for such immediate needs as arranging for the implementation of adaptations and equipment in the home, as well as identifying community resources or pushing for improvements of amenities for local SCI people.

A social worker may also provide the counselling services required by the patient, and act as a liaison between some members of the medical staff and the injured person’s family.

Serious Injury Law
Craig Francis is a law blogger with keen interest in serious injury litigation and rehabilitation.
Serious Injury Law

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