Long Term Complications of Spinal Cord Injury

Spinal cord injury affects approximately one-quarter of a million people, with approximately 11,000 new injuries occurring each year. Motor vehicle accidents, falls, trauma, sport-related injuries and violence are common causes of spinal cord injury. Spinal injuries often leave victims with long term complications that must be coped with for the remainder of the victim’s life.

The following are some common complications of spinal injury:

• Bladder control- bladder control may be lost as a result of spinal injury, due to the fact that nerves from the cord that signal a full bladder are damaged. Victims of spinal may be prone to bladder infections, kidney infections and renal calculi (kidney stones). It is important to take in enough fluids to prevent infection and stones. The spinal injured victim may need to learn new ways to empty their bladder.

• Bowel control- bowel control may be lost due to loss of the ability to control muscles that open and close the anus. Dietary changes and a bowel routine will be important as a means of coping with bowel incontinence should it occur.

• Impaired sensation- the victim of cord injury may lose sensation below the level of the injury, either in part or in whole. This means that the person may be unable to feel sensations such as pain, heat and cold. This loss of sensation makes the victim prone to pressure sores. Forever after, strict attention to the skin will be important in preventing pressure ulcers, which are one of the most dreaded complications of spinal.

• Changes in circulation- damage to the spine may cause circulatory changes, such as low blood pressure upon rising from a lying or sitting position, edema (swelling) of the extremities, and an increased risk of developing blood clots. Autonomic hyperreflexia is a sudden and dangerous rise in blood pressure that some victims of cord injury experience. Learning to cope with circulatory system changes is important following a spinal cord.

• Respiratory problems- depending on the level of injury, people with a spine injury may experience difficulty breathing, coughing or clearing secretions. With a very high spine injury, some victims may require mechanical ventilation. Learning to detect signs of respiratory infection early is one of the challenges of living with spine injury.

• Muscle problems- people with cord injury may have spastic or flaccid paralysis. Spasticity results in uncontrollable muscle movement while flaccid muscles lack tone and are limp.

• Pain- it is a myth that people with spinal injury can no longer feel pain. They may experience joint or muscle pain from overuse of certain muscle groups or they may experience nerve pain, especially if they have experienced an incomplete spinal injury.

• Sexual changes- men with spine cord may have difficulty getting or maintaining an erection or have difficulty with ejaculation. Both men and women may notice decreased sensation below the level of their spinal injury. People with spinal cord injury are generally fertile and can still reproduce.

Although complications of spinal cord injury can be overwhelming in the beginning, all of these problems can be dealt with. Many people with spinal injury lead relatively normal lives and go on to have a career and even a family. Part of rehabilitation after a spine injury is learning to cope with complications of spinal cord injury.