Understanding Pain Post-Spinal Cord Injury


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.

Musculoskeletal Pain

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

Neuropathic Pain

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

Visceral Pain

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.