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Written on 16th January 2019 by Tara Byrne

Injuries to the spinal cord are life-changing. Spinal cord injuries can result in an extensive period of adjustment and rehabilitation for the injured person.

In addition to development in the physical recovery and rehabilitation process, there have been advances in assistive technology which can help the spinally injured patient improve their mobility and regain their independence after what is often a seriously debilitating injury.

Assistive technology covers a wide spectrum of different devices and equipment, so it is necessary considering the type of spinal cord injury to understand which type of technology could help. Whilst communication aids such as Eyegaze are becoming more commonplace, the technology to assist people to walk is less developed and, therefore, costly.

What is quadriplegia?

Quadriplegia occurs where there is a spinal cord injury above the first thoracic vertebra or within the cervical vertebrae C1-C8. A person with quadriplegia will have paralysis in both the legs and arms. The type of injury and rehabilitation will have a bearing on the extent of the paralysis. For example, a person with quadriplegia may be able to control some of their fingers or part of their hands. In more severe cases, quadriplegia can impair a person’s ability to breathe unaided.

What is paraplegia?

Paraplegia occurs where there is a spinal cord injury below the first thoracic spinal levels of T1-L5. An injury of this nature does not impact on a person’s ability to use their arms but will result in partial or complete paralysis of their legs. Again, the extent of the disability will depend on the type of injury.

Any injury to the spinal cord can result in ongoing permanent symptoms affecting the arms and legs and may involve paralysis, numbness and altered sensation.

How can assistive technology help at home?

Adjusting from being fully independent to relying on family members or carers can be frustrating. Independent movement, which was previously taken for granted, disappears completely.  Assistive technology can help an individual to regain a degree of their past independence. It can enable a person confined to a wheelchair to be able to open doors, windows and curtains in their home, and move themselves throughout their own accommodation safely. Even simple things, such as turning on a light switch, can be done from a wheelchair by using an application on a mobile phone.

As with any significant debilitating injury, spinal injury increases vulnerability. It may be possible to insert a video surveillance system to control who is coming and going, or remotely operate electronic gates and garage doors, providing additional reassurance.

In preparing a claim for a client with a significant spinal injury it is necessary to consider and understand the various ways that technology may be of use. Lightweight computers or tablets are suitable for a person in a wheelchair to carry around, which will enable them to influence the world around them despite the significant restrictions they still face. Someone with a quadriplegic injury may need speech recognition software for communication, whereas a person with a paraplegic injury may be able to use a conventional keyboard and mouse.

How can assistive technology help in the outside world?

Losing the ability to drive can significantly curtail a person’s independence but vehicles can be adapted to allow the driver to drive from their own wheelchair, avoiding the need to transfer from wheelchair to car seat. Modern technology has developed so that voice activated controls can also be included in some adapted vehicles. A person with the use of their arms and/or hands can position themselves behind the wheel by accessing the vehicle from the back.

Social isolation is a significant hurdle for disabled individuals to overcome but assistive technology can help here too. For example, adapted golf clubs and specialist wheelchairs which support a person from seated to standing could enable a keen golfer to return to the sport they once loved. Such wheelchairs also help in social as well as sporting situations. For the more adventurous, organisations, such as The Scuba Trust, also enable people with quadriplegia, paraplegia and spinal injuries to scuba dive in a supported environment. There have also been great advances in assistive technology and gaming.

The Future

Assistive technology for those with a spinal injury continues to develop at a fast rate. Technology is becoming more accessible and the cost of such technology is likely to decrease as developments continue.

The future of assistive technology is exciting, constantly demonstrating that it is possible to expand the boundaries for disabled people, such as the participant who completed the London Marathon 2018 with the assistance of an exoskeleton.

Recently, electrical spinal implants enabled three men with spinal cord injuries to walk again. As specialist spinal cord injury solicitors, we would encourage our clients to consider the annual disabilities exhibition, Naidex, which showcases a range of new and upcoming technology to assist with every aspect of life.

The driving principle behind any claim is that compensation should, in so far as money can do so, put the injured person back in the position they would have been but for the negligent treatment which caused their injury. In cases of severe disability, this might appear to be an unrealistic exercise, but assistive technology can go some way towards improving independence, whilst ensuring that additional provision is made in the usual way for the costs of necessary care.

If you have suffered a spinal injury as a result of medical negligence and would like to discuss a potential claim, contact our spinal injury specialists by email at