What’s the link between spinal cord injury and body temperature?
After a spinal cord injury, your brain and body aren’t able to communicate as well as they used to. This results in impaired feeling and motor control below your level of injury.
When you can’t feel, it’s a sign that something is blocking the body’s signals to the brain and vice versa.
This article will explain how spinal cord injury can affect thermoregulation and what you can do to combat being too hot or cold.
How Does Spinal Cord Injury Affect Body Temperature Regulation?
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls body temperature.
Hot and cold signals travel to the hypothalamus, which uses the information to activate or inhibit the sympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for controlling your fight-or-flight response.
When activated, it will accelerate heart rate, increase blood flow, and boost alertness.
Normally, your body will produce sweat to cool down or you’ll get goosebumps and start shivering to conserve and produce heat.
However with spinal cord injury, areas below the level of injury may not be able to regulate body temperature on their own.
The brain isn’t receiving sensory input from the areas below your level of injury and the body does not receive the appropriate brain signals to regulate body temperature.
Factors that Affect Body Temperature
Inability to properly regulate body temperature after spinal cord injury will result in hypothermia (dangerously low body temperature; below 95˚F) or hyperthermia (overheating).
Next, we’ll go over 8 factors that affect body temperature. It’s important to be aware of them to better understand what can trigger fluctuations in body temperature.
1) Level of Injury
Level of injury plays a huge role in thermoregulation.
The higher your level of injury, the more areas of your body will be affected.
Autonomic dysreflexia is when the sympathetic nervous system overreacts to stimulations like extreme temperatures, tight clothes, or a full bladder below the level of injury.
It can cause your blood pressure to spike dangerously high, tightness in the chest, anxiety, headaches, and sweating above the level of injury.
2) Severity of Injury
The more severe your spinal cord injury, the greater the interference between the brain and body.
Those with milder spinal cord injuries may not even experience problems with thermoregulation.
However, those with complete SCIs will not have any motor control or feeling below their level of injury because all connections between the brain and body will have been cut off.
The hypothalamus is unable to receive any sensory input and therefore, cannot regulate temperatures below the level of injury.
Those with incomplete spinal cord injuries may have some thermoregulation below their level of injury because some neural pathways still exist.
3) Blood Flow
Another way the body regulates temperature is through the tightening and expanding of your blood vessels.
When the body overheats, vasodilation occurs.
Vasodilation is when your blood vessels expand closer to the skin.
By doing so, there’s more room for heat in your blood to disperse, which cools you down.
In contrast, when you start getting too cold, your blood vessels will undergo vasoconstriction and tighten.
This increases blood flow near the center of the body to conserve warmth.
The temperature of the surrounding environment can drastically affect your body temperature.
If your body has difficulties regulating body temperature after spinal cord injury, try to avoid extreme temperatures.
Often, you won’t be able to tell when you’re too cold or too hot and your body may start to panic.
5) Emotional State
Have you ever been in a heated argument where you’re yelling, breathing heavily, and just all-around very tense?
When you’re riled up or panicked, a release of stress hormones activates your sympathetic nervous system.
This causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, which increases your overall body temperature.
People with spinal cord injuries may not be able to maintain a safe body temperature when participating in intense exercise.
Because you might not be able to sweat, your chances of overheating are much greater.
Make sure to drink water before, during, and after your workout to prevent overheating.
Also, carry around a spray bottle or wet towel/cloth to cool off body surface temperature.
7) Skin Thickness
Your skin protects your body from the outside environment and plays a huge role in temperature regulation.
The thicker the skin, the stronger the defense.
Sweat glands help cool the body down and the sebaceous glands help retain moisture.
Skin can also store fat, which helps insulate heat and keep you warm.
8) Muscle Mass
After spinal cord injury, you may experience muscle atrophy, which is when your muscles shrink from disuse.
When you spend the majority of your time in a wheelchair, you’re not using your muscles enough, so they’ll shrink to conserve energy.
Reduced muscle mass and physical inactivity can slow down your metabolic rate quite a bit, which limits your ability to produce heat.
Movement is facilitated by the contracting and relaxing of muscles. When muscles contract, they generate heat.
This is why you shiver when you’re cold. Shivering is your body’s way of warming you up through quick muscle contractions.
Managing Spinal Cord Injury and Body Temperature
After spinal cord injury, the best way to manage body temperature is to be aware of your surroundings and prepare for the unexpected.
While slight fluctuations in body temperature throughout the day are normal, spinal cord injury may prevent areas below the injury from naturally cooling off or warming up.
Let’s go over some things you can do to help manage changes in temperature.
Tips for Cooling Off
- drink a lot of water throughout the day
- carry around a spray bottle and wet cloth/towel
- be very careful with icepacks because SCI patients may be unable to feel when something is too cold and get ice burn
Tips for Warming Up
- dress in layers
- take a warm bath
- use an electric blanket to warm up quickly (but be time-conscious and lower the temperature after a while to ensure you don’t heat up)
That’s it! Hopefully, this article helped you better understand how spinal cord injury can affect your body’s ability to maintain a healthy temperature.
Preparation is key, so plan ahead. Good luck!