Regardless of the level and severity of your injury, most people who sustain spinal cord injuries will endure chronic pain. This includes neuropathic pain, musculoskeletal pain, and even visceral pain. Understanding the differences between these types of pain is important because treatment for the various types of pain differ too.
What it is: muscle tightness/ excessive use of the bones, muscles, or joints.
Cause: pulling of muscles and straining of joints on unaffected limbs
Example: pain in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and forearms as a result of overuse when compensating for paralysis of the legs
Symptoms: often described as “dull” and “consistent” above the level of injury
Treatment: medication such as Opioids, physical therapy; Botox injections
What it is: brain misinterprets sensory signals and perceives them as pain
Cause: damage to the central nervous system
Example: burning sensation throughout the arms and legs in a complete quadriplegic
Symptoms: often described as “sharp, stabbing, or burning” pain that can be felt below the level of injury
Treatment: anticonvulsant and antidepressant drugs; electrical stimulation
What it is: pain that appears unexplained
Cause: pain from internal organ, urinary tract, or bowel
Example: shoulder pain caused by gall bladder disease
Symptoms: abdomen aching or cramping; pain in unrelated area above injury level
Treatment: perform tests to assess organs; treat accordingly
Pay attention to your pain. It may be trying to tell you something important about your health.
Chronic pain may be a part of life after a spinal cord injury, but by discussing your symptoms and their causes with your physicians, you’ll find that pain management options are available.
Keep in mind that with all medications, there are side effects. You will have to find what works for you while minimizing these as much as possible. Some people with SCI report reduced pain with treatments like Botox and electrical stimulation but others haven’t had those results.