Spinal Cord Injury: Treatments and Rehabilitation (cont.)
Jason C. Eck, DO, MS
Jason C. Eck, DO, MS
Dr. Eck received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Catholic University of America in Biomedical Engineering, followed by a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Marquette University. Following this he worked as a research engineer conducting spine biomechanics research. He then attended medical school at University of Health Sciences. He is board eligible in orthopaedic surgery.
In this Article
How Does a Spinal Cord Injury Affect the Rest of the Body?
People who survive a spinal cord injury will most likely have medical complications such as chronic pain and bladder and bowel dysfunction, along with an increased susceptibility to respiratory and heart problems. Successful recovery depends upon how well these chronic conditions are handled day to day.
Any injury to the spinal cord at or above the C3, C4, and C5 segments, which supply the phrenic nerves leading to the diaphragm, can stop breathing. People with these injuries need immediate ventilatory support. When injuries are at the C5 level and below, diaphragm function is preserved, but breathing tends to be rapid and shallow and people have trouble coughing and clearing secretions from their lungs because of weak thoracic muscles. Once pulmonary function improves, a large percentage of those with C4 injuries can be weaned from mechanical ventilation in the weeks following the injury.
Respiratory complications, primarily as a result of pneumonia, are a leading cause of death in people with spinal cord injury. In fact, intubation increases the risk of developing ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) by 1 to 3 percent per day of intubation. More than a quarter of the deaths caused by spinal cord injury are the result of VAP. Spinal cord injury patients who are intubated have to be carefully monitored for VAP and treated with antibiotics if symptoms appear.
Irregular heart beat and low blood pressure
Spinal cord injuries in the cervical region are often accompanied by blood pressure instability and heart arrhythmias. Because of interruptions to the cardiac accelerator nerves, the heart can beat at a dangerously slow pace, or it can pound rapidly and irregularly. Arrhythmias usually appear in the first 2 weeks after injury and are more common and severe in the most serious injuries.
Low blood pressure also often occurs due to loss of tone in blood vessels, which widen and cause blood to pool in the small arteries far away from the heart. This is usually treated with an intravenous infusion to build up blood volume.
People with spinal cord injuries are at triple the usual risk for blood clots. The risk for clots is low in the first 72 hours, but afterwards anticoagulation drug therapy can be used as a preventive measure.
Many of our reflex movements are controlled by the spinal cord but regulated by the brain. When the spinal cord is damaged, information from the brain can no longer regulate reflex activity. Reflexes may become exaggerated over time, causing spasticity. If spasms become severe enough, they may require medical treatment. For some, spasms can be as much of a help as they are a hindrance, since spasms can tone muscles that would otherwise waste away. Some people can even learn to use the increased tone in their legs to help them turn over in bed, propel them into and out of a wheelchair, or stand.
Autonomic dysreflexia is a life-threatening reflex action that primarily affects those with injuries to the neck or upper back. It happens when there is an irritation, pain, or stimulus to the nervous system below the level of injury. The irritated area tries to send a signal to the brain, but since the signal isn't able to get through, a reflex action occurs without the brain's regulation. Unlike spasms that affect muscles, autonomic dysreflexia affects vascular and organ systems controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
Anything that causes pain or irritation can set off autonomic dysreflexia: the urge to urinate or defecate, pressure sores, cuts, burns, bruises, sunburn, pressure of any kind on the body, ingrown toenails, or tight clothing. For example, the impulse to urinate can set off high blood pressure or rapid heart beat that, if uncontrolled, can cause stroke, seizures, or death. Symptoms such as flushing or sweating, a pounding headache, anxiety, sudden high blood pressure, vision changes, or goosebumps on the arms and legs can signal the onset of autonomic dysreflexia. Treatment should be swift. Changing position, emptying the bladder or bowels, and removing or loosening tight clothing are just a few of the possibilities that should be tried to relieve whatever is causing the irritation.
Pressure sores (or pressure ulcers)
Pressure sores are areas of skin tissue that have broken down because of continuous pressure on the skin. People with paraplegia and quadriplegia are susceptible to pressure sores because they can't move easily on their own.
Places that support weight when someone is seated or recumbent are vulnerable areas. When these areas press against a surface for a long period of time, the skin compresses and reduces the flow of blood to the area. When the blood supply is blocked for too long, the skin will begin to break down.
Since spinal cord injury reduces or eliminates sensation below the level of injury, people may not be aware of the normal signals to change position, and must be shifted periodically by a caregiver. Good nutrition and hygiene can also help prevent pressure sores by encouraging healthy skin.
People who are paralyzed often have what is called neurogenic pain resulting from damage to nerves in the spinal cord. For some survivors of spinal cord injury, pain or an intense burning or stinging sensation is unremitting due to hypersensitivity in some parts of the body. Others are prone to normal musculoskeletal pain as well, such as shoulder pain due to overuse of the shoulder joint from pushing a wheelchair and using the arms for transfers. Treatments for chronic pain include medications, acupuncture, spinal or brain electrical stimulation, and surgery.
Bladder and bowel problems
Most spinal cord injuries affect bladder and bowel functions because the nerves that control the involved organs originate in the segments near the lower termination of the spinal cord and are cut off from brain input. Without coordination from the brain, the muscles of the bladder and urethra can't work together effectively, and urination becomes abnormal. The bladder can empty suddenly without warning, or become over-full without releasing. In some cases the bladder releases, but urine backs up into the kidneys because it isn't able to get past the urethral sphincter. Most people with spinal cord injuries use either intermittent catheterization or an indwelling catheter to empty their bladders.
Bowel function is similarly affected. The anal sphincter muscle can remain tight, so that bowel movements happen on a reflex basis whenever the bowel is full. Or the muscle can be permanently relaxed, which is called a "flaccid bowel," and result in an inability to have a bowel movement. This requires more frequent attempts to empty the bowel and manual removal of stool to prevent fecal impaction. People with spinal cord injuries are usually put on a regularly scheduled bowel program to prevent accidents.
Reproductive and sexual function
Spinal cord injury has a greater impact on sexual and reproductive function in men than it does in women. Most spinal cord injured women remain fertile and can conceive and bear children. Even those with severe injury may well retain orgasmic function, although many lose some if not all of their ability to reach satisfaction.
Depending on the level of injury, men may have problems with erections and ejaculation, and most will have compromised fertility due to decreased motility of their sperm. Treatments for men include vibratory or electrical stimulation and drugs such as sildenafil (Viagra). Many couples may also need assisted fertility treatments to allow a spinal cord injured man to father children.
Once someone has survived the injury and begun to psychologically and emotionally cope with the nature of his or her situation, the next concern will be how to live with disabilities. Doctors are now able to predict with reasonable accuracy the likely long-term outcome of spinal cord injuries. This helps patients set achievable goals for themselves, and gives families and loved ones a realistic set of expectations for the future.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/4/2015
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