Long-Term Effects of Spinal Cord Injury

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Unfortunately, there is not one easy fix to spinal cord injuries. This is not just because of the myriad ways in which an injury can occur through accidents. This is also due to the fact that the spinal cord is incredibly complicated and is the highway on which all signals travel to and from the brain.

When someone is seriously injured, there are many places this injury can occur. The spinal cord is made up of 31 nerve segments. There are:

  • Eight cervical segments
  • Twelve thoracic segments
  • Five lumbar segments
  • Five sacral segments
  • One occygeal segment

The financial and economic burden does not end when the victims leave the hospital. They and their families will face a completely altered existence for years to come. Though victims of spinal cord injuries used to survive only a few years after their injuries, science and technology have prolonged their lives for decades. However, as the affected individual ages, their injuries will take a toll on their bodies in a much different way than they would have had the injury never occurred.

The way in which the body reacts to an injury of this nature depends on the day-to-day care the individual receives, and complications such as chronic pain, bladder and bowel dysfunction, and susceptibility to heart and respiratory problems must be closely monitored.

Some Reactions of the Body

Breathing An injury to the cervical segments (C3-C5) may affect the diaphragm and breathing. Those with spinal cord injuries will need to be ventilated to support their breathing. If the injury is below the C5 segment, breathing may be rapid and shallow, and trouble coughing and clearing secretions from the lungs may develop due to weak thoracic muscles. Individuals may be weaned off the ventilator after several weeks, but the risk of developing pneumonia increases.

Pneumonia This is one of the leading causes of death in those with a spinal cord injury. The risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) increases up to three percent per day of ventilation. VAP is the cause of a quarter of all spinal cord injury deaths. Individuals must be treated with antibiotics if symptoms of pneumonia appear.

Blood clots Due to paralysis, people with spinal cord injuries are three times more susceptible to blood clots. Anticoagulation drugs and therapy may be used to prevent this problem.

Heart beat and blood pressure Heart beat and blood pressure are irregular and unstable. The heart can beat rapidly or at a dangerously slow pace due to interruptions to the cardiac accelerator nerves. This may appear within the first two weeks people are injured and are common in the most severely injured.

Pressure sores Also called bed sores, those with paraplegia or quadriplegia are susceptible because they cant move on their own. These occur when continuous pressure causes the tissue of the skin to break down. A caregiver must shift the person around periodically to avoid prolonged pressure on the skin. Good hygiene and nutrition can also prevent sores.

Autonomic dysreflexia This is a life-threatening reflex action affecting those with neck or upper-back injuries. When there is pain, irritation, or stimulus to the nervous system below the injury, a signal is sent to the brain. However, because the receptors have been cut and the signal isnt able to get through, a reflex reaction occurs without regulation from the brain. These are unlike spasms, which may also be common. Because the sympathetic nervous system becomes more active in stressful situations and is also responsible for the fight-or-flight response, vascular and organ systems controlled by it are affected. Symptoms include headaches, anxiety, sweating or flushing, changes in vision, sudden high blood pressure, and goosebumps on the arms or legs can be the precursor to autonomic dysreflexia. Immediate action and trying to relieve whatever is causing the problem (changing position, loosening tight clothing or bedding, relieving the bladder or bowels) will help alleviate the situation.

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These are only some of the many responses the body has to a spinal cord injury. Individuals with injuries of this nature may face an increased rate of osteoporosis, muscle degeneration, renal system failure, and a reduction in hormones responsible for maintenance and repair of cellular tissue.

Spinal cord injuries are not only suffered by the injured party, but by their loved ones as well. If you or your loved one has suffered a spinal cord injury as the result of another's negligence, please contact Stephens & Holman by calling 604-730-4120 for a complimentary review of your case.