Caring for Those with Spinal Cord Injury

Family Caregiving August 22, 2016 Print Friendly and PDF

Is your wounded warrior suffering from a spinal cord injury (SCI) that requires you to assist him or her with daily activities such as bathing, dressing, and bladder management?

If so, you are not alone. Caregiving can be emotionally, intellectually, and physically challenging at times. However, you can do several things to take care of yourself and ultimately better serve your wounded warrior.

Causes and effects of SCI

The spinal cord is a long series of nerve cells stretching from the brain to the lower back. These nerve cells send signals from the brain to all parts of the body and back to the brain. During military operations, service members may be exposed to ammunition explosives, fragments, or blasts that can penetrate the spinal cord. Depending on a wounded warrior’s injury, its severity, and the impact on nerve cells, the SCI may affect neighboring parts of the body.

Disruption to the spinal cord can lead to changes in movement, feeling, and bladder control and possibly to changes in brain activity. Damage to the lower portion of the spine can result in paraplegia (the loss of motor or sensory function) and possible loss of bladder, bowel, and sexual function. Injury to the upper portion of the spine near the neck area can result in tetraplegia, also called quadriplegia, which causes the loss of function in the lower body, upper body, and arms.

The good news is that according to Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, recent advances in medicine are allowing individuals who have sustained a severe SCI, who a decade or two ago would not have survived, not only to survive the injury but also to live long, productive lives.

Strategies for helping and coping

It's important that you, as the caregiver, learn strategies for helping your wounded warrior and yourself.

  • Introduce techniques and devices, such as a wheelchair, for ease of mobility.
  • Learn about various rehabilitation programs available for individuals with SCI.
  • Contact your wounded warrior’s occupational therapist to help both you and the patient understand accessibility features, such as ramp inclines and door widths.
  • Connect with your wounded warrior’s military social worker to help you and your wounded service member better understand Social Security Disability (SSD), Veterans Affairs and Medicare/Medicaid benefits, separation from the military, advocacy groups for the disabled, and legal resources and protections.
  • Acknowledge the difficulty your wounded warrior may have in accepting new limitations.
  • Learn how you can assist with your wounded warrior's common medical needs, including bowel and bladder care and pressure and sore prevention.
  • Join a support group for caregivers who are experiencing similar wounded warrior situations. Locate such groups by contacting your local Army installation's Soldier and Family Assistance Center (SFAC).
  • Learn all you can about your wounded warrior’s specific SCI; no one individual’s recovery process is the same as another's.

The transition from wounded warrior to veteran

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, many veterans with SCI qualify for disability compensation because their health problems occurred during military service. Veterans Affairs also states that wounded warriors with SCI unrelated to military services may receive VA medical care under certain rules governing individuals with serious disabilities or low incomes. Upon qualification, benefits may include:

  • Monthly disability compensation
  • Compensation if the injury resulted in the loss of the use of hands or feet or in other disabilities
  • Vocational counseling
  • Grants for adapted housing and automobiles
  • Clothing allowance
  • Payment for home and attendant care

Caregiver resources

Remember: Veterans Affairs is there for you! The Department of Veterans Affairs has recently established the VA Caregiver Support Program to offer support and services to family caregivers of veterans. The program includes information and tips on what to expect when caring for wounded warriors, tips on staying strong and healthy, and a caregiver support line for times when you just need someone to listen. For additional information, visit the VA Caregiver Support website.

Veterans Affairs also has the largest single network of SCI care in the nation, extending from 23 regional SCI centers offering primary and specialty care by multidisciplinary teams. Call your local Veterans Affairs regional SCI center for care and benefits assistance.

For more information, assistance, and SCI resources, visit or Department of Veterans Affairs. Contact your local Army installation's SFAC for information about support groups and caregiver support services.


  1. Advice for Caregivers of Spinal Cord Injury.” Injury Board. 3. Feb. 2011.
  2. Care of the Combat Amputee: Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation.” U.S. Army Medical Department, Borden Institute. 3. Feb. 2011.
  3. Paralysis/Spinal Cord Injury.” U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2). Aug. 2009. 3 Feb. 2011.
  4. Philpott, D., & Hill, J. 2007. The Wounded Warrior Handbook: Traumatic Brain Injury. Walter Reed Army Medical Center, 1-132.
  5. Robinson-Whelen, S., & Rintala, D. 2003. Informal care providers for veterans with SCI: Who are they and how are they doing? Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development, 40(6), 511-516.
  6. Spinal Cord Injury.” Paralyzed Veterans of America. 28 Feb. 2011.
  7. Spinal Cord Injury.” 28. Feb. 2011. 

Photos provided by the Fort Hood Sentinel.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.