Spinal Cord Injury Complications
Secondary complications occur as a direct result of a spinal injury and are a major health issue for those living with a SCI. While loss of sensation and movement are the most common spinal cord injury complications, other systems in the body can be significantly affected.
Spinal cord injury complications, such as pressure sores, urinary tract infections, spasticity, and osteoporosis, if not treated, can lead to serious illness or death.
Pressure sores (skin breakdown): Also called decubitus ulcers, pressure sores are dangerous spinal cord injury complications. Pressure sores are caused when an individual sits or lies in the same position for a long period of time. The pressure prevents blood from reaching the skin causing the skin to die. People with spinal cord injuries are particularly susceptible to pressure sores since damage to the spinal cord keeps messages of pain and discomfort from reaching the brain, making it very difficult to identify a developing sore. Pressure sores are a common cause of hospitalization, and if not treated, cause death. The best way to prevent these sores is changing positions frequently.
Urinary tract infections: A traumatic SCI can often lead to loss of bladder control, which increases the risk of urinary tract infections. Urinary incontinence may also cause kidney infection and kidney or bladder stones. These types of spinal cord injury complications can be avoided by drinking plenty of clear fluids and using a catheter—a thin tube that is inserted into the urethra and bladder to drain urine—several times a day.
Spasticity: Muscle spasms, or spasticity, can develop after a spinal cord injury. These involuntary twitches are exaggerated reflexes caused when some of the nerves in the lower spinal cord are stimulated. Unfortunately, this does not mean that a person is recovering. The nerves, sensing discomfort or pain, are merely causing muscle contractions that the brain is no longer able to control or regulate. Almost anything can trigger spasticity. A paralyzed person cannot perform normal range of motion exercises, making their joints and muscles less flexible and therefore more prone to these types of spasms. The best way to manage or reduce spasticity is to follow a daily range of motion exercise program. If spasms become severe, medical treatments may be needed.
Osteoporosis and fractures: The majority of spinal cord injury survivors develop osteoporosis. Osteoporosis means “porous bones” and occurs when bones become weak and brittle due to lack of calcium and phosphorus. Normally, bones are kept strong by bearing weight and through regular muscle activity. In people with spinal cord injuries, however, decreased or eliminated muscle activity as well as decreased load on the bones can lead to loss of calcium and phosphorus. In the years following spinal cord injury, some degree of bone loss will occur, which, in turn, increases the risk for fractures.Using one’s legs to provide some support in transferring or standing using a standing frame is helpful in increasing the load on the bones, which can help slow down the osteoporotic process and reduce the risk of fractures.
Other Spinal Cord Injury Complications:
- Changes to circulation and respiration
- Changes to the kidneys and gastrointestinal system
- Changes to muscles, joints, and bones
- Edema, swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissues
- Blood clots in the lower limbs
- Feelings of numbness or pain
- Skin injury
- Bacterial infection
- Disruption of the normal working of the tissues, glands, and organs
- Sexual difficulties
- Abnormal sweating
- Abnormal breathing or heart rate
- Balance problems
- Difficulty thinking
- Behavioral issues
- Difficulty speaking or swallowing
- Vision problems
- Chronic pain
- Low blood pressure
Spinal Cord Injury Complications: The Mayo Clinic