Effects of a Spinal Cord Injury
People who survive a spinal cord injury are likely to have secondary medical complications. These ailments must be managed successfully to allow the patient the best quality of life possible.
- Breathing - An injury to the spinal cord at or above the C3, C4, and C5 segments can stop or impair breathing. People with these injuries will likely need to be placed on a ventilator. Injuries at the C5 level and below still tend to affect breathing, usually resulting in rapid and shallow breaths, as well as difficulties with coughing or clearing the lungs.
- Irregular heart beat and low blood pressure - Spinal cord injuries in the cervical region often result in unstable blood pressure and/or heart arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat). Irregularities usually emerge in the first two weeks after injury; in more severe injuries, these problems are likely to be worse. 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. IV infusions can help correct this problem by restoring the blood's volume.
- Blood clots - People with spinal cord injuries are at an increased risk for blood clots.
- Spasms - When the spinal cord is damaged, information from the brain stops regulating reflexes, allowing them to become exaggerated and spastic. If spasms become severe enough, they may require medical treatment.
- Autonomic dysreflexia - A life-threatening reflex affecting people with injuries in the neck or upper back. When a stimulus appears below the level of injury, the affected region tries to send a signal to the brain, but since it can't get through, a reflex occurs without regulation. These types of reflexes can affect blood flow, organ function and any other process controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. The result can be anything from increased blood pressure or rapid heartbeat to strokes, seizures, or even death.
- Pressure sores - Skin tissue can break down if it is under constant pressure. Since people with paralysis can't move easily on their own, they can develop pressure sores if not rotated or offered appropriate diets to encourage healthy skin development.
- Pain - Nerve damage in the spinal cord can cause neurogenic pain; overuse of certain muscles, particularly for paraplegics who constantly push a wheelchair, can result in muscular pain.
- Bladder and bowel problems - Most spinal cord injuries affect bladder and bowel function because the nerves that control those organs begin near the base of the cord. Most people will need to have a catheter implanted to control bladder function and prevent infections. Since bowel function is difficult to regulate, 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 in women. Most women with these injuries can still conceive and carry a pregnancy. Men may have problems achieving erections or experiencing ejaculation, and most will become less fertile as sperm motility declines.