Addiction Recovery Options For Those Affected By Paralysis

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on October 11, 2021

People with physical disabilities, including paralysis, are at an increased risk for misusing drugs and alcohol. Treatment for substance use disorders among people with paralysis may involve detox, inpatient rehab, behavioral therapy, and pain management.

Resources For Those With Paralysis And Addiction

Drug and alcohol addiction is a chronic, but treatable condition that affects millions of individuals and families in the United States—including people with paralysis.

Multiple research studies show that people with physical disabilities that cause paralysis are more likely than the general population to develop a substance use problem.

What research shows:

  • People with disabilities are two to four times more likely to develop a substance use disorder compared to the general population.
  • People with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, in particular, are at a significantly higher risk of developing substance use disorders compared to the general population.

How Substance Use Treatment Could Help People Affected By Paralysis

Millions of people in the United States could benefit from substance use treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Yet only a small percentage actually receive treatment in any given year.

People with physical disabilities, including those that cause paralysis, are even less likely than the general population to receive adequate, accessible addiction treatment.

What Is The Scope Of Paralysis?

Nearly one in five Americans—or about 60 million people—live with some form of paralysis.

Paralysis can be temporary or permanent. It can be localized to one area of the body—such as the hands, feet, or face—or generalized, where multiple areas might be affected.

Generalized paralysis can be classified as:

  • diplegia: affecting corresponding areas on both sides of the body (e.g. both arms)
  • hemiplegia: affecting one side of the body
  • monoplegia: affecting only one limb
  • paraplegia: affecting the legs and lower body
  • quadriplegia: affecting both arms, legs, and sometimes the entire front from the neck down

Paralysis doesn’t look the same in everyone, and it can affect people in different ways.

It can be temporary or permanent, and can be caused by a variety of conditions and injuries.

What Causes Paralysis?

Paralysis is a complete or partial loss of muscle function that can occur as a result of a birth defect, medical condition, or injury that affects how the muscles and nerves function.

Causes of paralysis include:

  • stroke
  • spinal cord injury
  • head injury
  • multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • spina bifida
  • cerebral palsy
  • exposure to toxins
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome
  • ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease)
  • peripheral neuropathy

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the leading causes of paralysis among Americans are stroke and spinal cord injury.

The Link Between Substance Abuse And Paralysis

Substance abuse is a term used to refer to the misuse of drugs or alcohol. This includes illicit drugs like cocaine, or prescription drugs like OxyContin or Xanax.

A substance use disorder is a mental health disorder characterized by physical drug dependence or an inability to control one’s drug use or drinking. This is often referred to as addiction.

Some people are believed to be at a higher risk of developing drug and alcohol use issues, at no fault of their own but more likely due to genetic, environmental, and other personal factors.

High-risk groups among people with paralysis include:

  • young adults
  • veterans
  • people with co-occurring mental illness

Substance abuse can often develop as a response to difficulties experienced by people with disabilities, such as loneliness, chronic pain, depression, and thoughts of suicide.

In the absence of supportive coping skills, drugs and alcohol may be used to numb, distract, or to self-medicate symptoms of a physical disability. Substances can also be used to explicitly cause injury to oneself.

What Puts People With Paralysis At Higher Risk For Substance Abuse?

Substance misuse typically can’t be traced back to a single cause. More often than not, it’s a variety of factors that can trigger harmful drinking habits or drug use.

While genes, your environment, and personal factors can influence a person’s risk for substance misuse in the general population, people with paralysis can have additional risk factors.

Risk factors for developing substance use disorders:

Prescription Drug Use

Prescription painkillers and other powerful medications are often prescribed for people with paralysis.

Unfortunately, these drugs are habit-forming and can be misused even by those who originally take them as prescribed.

Mental Health

Many people with physical disabilities struggle with depression, anxiety, or live with post-traumatic stress disorder.

These disorders can increase a person’s risk for substance abuse, particularly within disability communities.


Discrimination from others can play a role in substance misuse, particularly illicit drug use, among people with disabilities.


People with physical disabilities, including paralysis, experience unique sources of interpersonal, financial, and health-related stress. This can increase a person’s risk for turning to drugs or alcohol to cope.

Veteran Status

An estimated 42,000 people with spinal cord injuries in the United States are veterans. Veterans are at increased risk for substance misuse, mental health disorders, and suicide.

Feeling Disconnected

Many people with physical disabilities such as paralysis feel disconnected from others around them, or can be at greater risk for social isolation.

Feeling isolated from others can increase the likelihood of heavy alcohol use or drug use to cope with loneliness.

What Are Common Drugs Of Abuse Among People With Paralysis?

Prescription drug misuse and alcohol misuse is very common among people with spinal cord injuries, and those paralyzed as a result of other causes.

Common drugs of abuse include:

  • alcohol
  • opioids (e.g. oxycodone, hydrocodone, tramadol)
  • heroin
  • cocaine
  • amphetamines (e.g. Adderall)

Polysubstance abuse—or the abuse of multiple drugs—is also common. This may include the concurrent use of prescribed medications, illicit drugs, and alcohol.

Can Substance Abuse Cause Paralysis?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a wide range of commonly misused substances can have neurological effects when abused chronically or in excessive amounts.

Drugs that can cause neurological problems include:

  • cocaine
  • heroin
  • inhalants
  • hallucinogens (e.g. LSD, GHB)
  • methamphetamine
  • marijuana
  • prescription painkillers
  • prescription sedatives
  • salvia
  • tobacco

Over time, the chronic misuse of these drugs can have serious effects, including brain damage, seizures, and stroke—a leading cause of paralysis.

According to an article published in the journal Brain and Behavior, drug use is one of the most common predisposing conditions for stroke among people under the age of 35.

Drug Overdose, Intoxication, And Paralysis

Drug overdose and intoxication can both affect the body’s muscles and nerves. Severe overdose, for instance, can cause strokes, seizures, and permanent injury to the brain and nerves.

According to CDC data, a total of 967,615 nonfatal overdoses were treated in emergency departments in 29 states in 2017.

Intoxication from drugs and alcohol can also cause paralysis.

Heavy drinking and drug use is a known risk factor for falls, accidental injuries, and motor vehicle accidents that can cause head and spinal cord injury.

Rates Of Substance Abuse And Paralysis In The U.S.

Many researchers have studied the connection between substance misuse, addiction, and medical conditions that can cause paralysis.

Relevant facts regarding alcohol and drug abuse and paralysis in the U.S. include:

  • An estimated 4.7 million people in the United States with a disability have a substance use problem.
  • Up to 50 percent of all people with spinal cord injuries have a substance use problem.
  • People who drink alcohol are at four times the risk of sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
  • Up to 75 percent of TBIs occur while a person is intoxicated.
  • Young adults who have co-occurring spina bifida and depression have a higher rate of alcohol use compared to their peers.

Addiction Treatment For People With Paralysis

Recovery from addiction is a lifelong process that often begins with intensive treatment, such as an inpatient rehab program or intensive outpatient.

Drug and alcohol addiction can have serious physical, emotional, and psychological effects.

Healing from this takes time and can require treatment at multiple levels of care, depending on a person’s history of substance use, their health status, and other personal needs.

Addiction treatment may involve:

  • detoxification
  • individual and group counseling
  • family therapy
  • behavioral therapy
  • mental health counseling
  • medication assisted treatment
  • pain management assistance
  • relapse prevention

Making Treatment More Accessible

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), all healthcare providers are required to ensure treatment is accessible for people with disabilities.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a reality for all of those with disabilities who seek substance use treatment. Many treatment facilities are not fully accessible, according to the SAMHSA.

Making substance use treatment accessible for everyone, including people with paralysis, is possible.

Addiction treatment providers can address:

  • Physical barriers: Rehab centers can ensure there aren’t architectural barriers that make it difficult for people with paralysis to navigate their physical property.
  • Staff training: Treatment providers can enlist the services of advocacy organizations to train staff on best treatment practices for people with paralysis.
  • Accessibility: Adapting treatment methods and services to accessible formats for people with paralysis can ensure they’re not excluded from any part of the treatment process.
  • Screening: Vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselors and other healthcare professionals can learn how to better screen for signs of substance misuse in people with paralysis.

Addiction And Paralysis Resources For Individuals And Families

Addiction can affect anyone, regardless of one’s physical abilities. If you or a loved one with paralysis is misusing drugs to self-medicate pain, depression, or stress, here is a list of resources.

General resources:

Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation

This nonprofit organization is dedicated to curing spinal cord injury and improving the quality of life of those affected by spinal cord injuries.

Helpful resources include:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC Disability and Health Promotion webpage offers a variety of educational resources for people with disabilities and their families.

Helpful resources include:

Craig Hospital

Craig Hospital is a leading rehab facility in the U.S. for people with spinal cord and brain injuries. The hospital offers an online Spinal Cord Resource Library and Brain Injury Resource Library.

Helpful resources include:

National Alliance on Mental Illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is the nation’s largest grassroots organization that advocates for people affected by mental illness, as well as co-occurring health issues.

NAMI offers a wide range of resources related to advocacy, mental health education, as well as support groups for people who live with mental illness and their families.

Helpful resources include:

Paralyzed Veterans of America

The Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) is a veterans service organization that offers education resources, services, and advocates for veterans with some form of paralysis.

Helpful resources include:

Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This agency offers educational resources, support services, and a treatment locator for people with mental health and substance use disorders.

Helpful resources include:

Substance Abuse Resources and Disability Issues (SARDI) Program

Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine offers a wide range of educational resources and support services for people with disabilities through their SARDI program.

Helpful resources include:

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves over nine million veterans in the United States, including over 27,000 veterans with spinal cord injuries.

The VA offers a wide range of health and support services, including substance use treatment and self-help guides, for veterans with mental and physical disabilities.

Helpful resources include:

Addiction Recovery Is Possible

Living with addiction, or living with someone affected, can feel impossible to escape from. For those who feel this way, this is normal. But this doesn’t have to be the rest of your life.

You are not alone. For more information on substance use treatment for yourself or a loved one with paralysis, you can call our helpline today or view the resources listed on this page.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.

These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.

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