Spinal cord injury: Pain management

The pain from a spinal cord injury can be confusing and complicated. There are various types of pain that are described in different ways. The individual might have pain where he/she have feeling but also present in an area where otherwise there is no feeling. In some cases, the pain can be intense at some point but it can vanish or cause minimal discomfort.

Types of pain

Neuropathic pain

This is triggered by damage to the nervous system and common in spinal cord injury.

  • The pain from a spinal cord injury occurs in regions where the individual lost some or all sensation. It is not associated to movements or positioning and often described as numbness, tingling or throbbing.

    Spinal cord injury

    Secondary overuse pain is managed using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin.

  • Segmental pain occurs around the perimeter amidst the area with sensation and no sensation.
  • Nerve root entrapment pain develops at or beneath the level of injury. It causes momentary episodes of pain or burning sensation where normal sensation ceases.

Musculoskeletal pain

Musculoskeletal pain develops in the joints, bones and muscles. The difference with neuropathic pain is that movement affects it by intensifying it and alleviated by rest. The pain is described as dull or aching.

Secondary overuse pain is triggered by overuse of muscles in any part of the body. Among those with spinal cord injury, it often occurs since one muscle group is always used.

Visceral pain

This type of pain occurs in the abdomen and can be described as cramping, burning and continuous.

Management of pain from a spinal cord injury

If an individual has pain from a spinal cord injury, it should not be ignored and consult a doctor. It is vital to determine the type of pain. Remember that the pain might be an indication of a serious issue.

  • Complementary therapies can be used to minimize the pain such as acupuncture, guided imagery, biofeedback, hypnosis and yoga.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) involves introduction of brief electrical impulses to the nerve endings in the skin to alleviate chronic pain from spinal cord injury.
  • Counselling
  • Certain medications for neuropathic pain such as anticonvulsants, tricyclic antidepressants and opioid analgesics
  • Segmental pain can be treated with injections of an anesthetic medication into the space amidst the wall of the spinal canal, epidural block or surgery that cuts the nerve roots.
  • Secondary overuse pain is managed using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin. This must be accompanied by reducing activity as well as taking breaks.
  • For muscle spasm pain, antispasmodics are used.

More Information / Disclaimer

The information posted on this page on spinal cord injury is for learning purposes only. Learn to recognize and manage spinal injuries by taking a standard first aid course with Vancouver First Aid.


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