No products in the cart.

Spinal Cord Injury and Breathing Difficulties: What’s the Link?

spinal cord injury and breathing

Wondering if spinal cord injury and breathing difficulties are related?

People experience breathing difficulties after spinal cord injury because their respiratory muscles get paralyzed.

Signals from the brain can’t pass through the spinal cord damage, which results in loss of control over the innervated muscles.

The extent of your breathing difficulties will depend on the level and completeness of your spinal cord injury.

How Level of Spinal Cord Injury Affects Breathing

levels of spinal cord injury

Not all spinal cord injuries will result in impaired breathing.

The level of your spinal cord injury plays a huge part in determining whether your ability to breathe will be compromised.

Generally, patients who have cervical spinal cord injuries (injury to the first 8 neurological segments of the spinal cord) will experience some sort of breathing problem.

The C3-C5 segments of your spinal cord innervate the diaphragm.

If your level of injury is C4 or higher, you likely will not be able to breathe on your own and will need the help of a ventilator.

These higher-level spinal cord injuries are often fatal and need immediate medical attention to restore breathing.

People with C5 spinal cord injuries might start off using a ventilator but usually wean off it as they recover.

Those with thoracic spinal cord injuries may experience some breathing difficulties because the muscles that make up the trunk are weakened or paralyzed.

Breathing difficulties following spinal cord injury can result in reduced lung volume, weak coughing, and increased risk of respiratory infections.

People with lumbar or sacral spinal cord injuries should not have any breathing difficulties because lower-level injuries don’t affect the major respiratory muscles.

Major Muscles that Affect Breathing

spinal cord injury and breathing difficulties

The lungs aren’t directly affected by spinal cord injury and will not experience paralysis; however, the diaphragm, intercostal muscles, and abdominal muscles can.

1. Diaphragm

As mentioned earlier, the diaphragm is innervated by the C3, C4, and C5 segments of the spinal cord.

It contracts and moves downwards, which allows your lungs to expand to and inhale more air.

2. Intercostals

The intercostals are the muscles that make up your chest area.

Notice how when you inhale, your chest lifts and expands.

The intercostal muscles are responsible for raising and lowering your ribcage so that your lungs can expand for deep, effective breaths.

Those with upper-level thoracic injuries will have weakness or completely paralyzed intercostal muscles and will therefore, have very limited lung capacity, smaller breaths, and a weak cough.

3. Abdominals

The tightening of your abdominals helps your diaphragm contract and helps strengthen your cough so that you can clear the lungs.

The mid to lower thoracic segments of the spinal cord innervate the abdominals.

Paralysis over the abdominal muscles will result in a weak cough due to poor abdominal pressure.

Common Respiratory Complications Associated with Spinal Cord Injury

can spinal cord injury cause breathing complications

Did you know that respiratory complications are the leading cause of death in people with spinal cord injuries?

When we inhale, we breathe in oxygen, which fuels cellular activity.

When we exhale, the body is getting rid of carbon dioxide.

It’s important for the body to maintain an even balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide to prevent respiratory failure.

Let’s go over some of the most common respiratory complications that spinal cord injury patients experience.


Pneumonia is the most prevalent cause of death in people with spinal cord injuries.

Spinal cord injury patients that have weak coughs are unable to clear their lungs of mucus, which allows the air sacs in the lungs to fill with secretions.

Symptoms of pneumonia include excessive congestion, pale skin, extreme shortness of breath, and fever.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is when your breathing fluctuates while you’re asleep.

During sleep, breathing becomes very shallow and the respiratory system has to work harder to maintain breathing stability.

This becomes even more difficult with higher-level spinal cord injury patients because of reduced lung capacity.

Spinal cord injury patients that have impaired breathing often wake up repeatedly throughout the night, which can cause daytime sleepiness, anxiety, irritability, and poor focus.


Atelectasis is when part or all of your lungs collapse due to insufficient amounts of oxygen.

This is a common result of low lung volume after spinal cord injury.

How Completeness of Injury Affects Breathing After Spinal Cord Injury

spinal cord injury and breathing

Whether you have a complete or incomplete spinal cord injury can dramatically affect how severe your breathing impairments are.

The more complete the spinal cord lesion is, the more sensorimotor impairments you’ll experience.

Incomplete spinal cord injuries can vary quite a bit. Some can be very mild and hardly affect sensorimotor functions while others can be more severe and result in almost complete loss of functions below the level of injury.

The less severe your spinal cord injury, the better the chances of recovering from respiratory complications.

Managing Spinal Cord Injury and Breathing Difficulties

Managing breathing difficulties following a spinal cord injury will require you to make some lifestyle changes like:

  • Avoid Smoking. Smoking is extremely harmful to the lungs and increases the likelihood of contracting respiratory infections.
  • Drink A Lot of Water. Drinking water will help thin out mucus so that it is easier to cough out.
  • Practice Breathing and Coughing Exercises. Breathing exercises will help you gradually expand lung capacity. Coughing exercises will help develop your cough so that you can empty your lungs.
  • Maintain a Healthy Weight. Those who are overweight or obese are more likely to experience breathing problems due to reduced lung capacity.
  • Exercise. Depending on the severity of your spinal cord injury, exercise can definitely help strengthen your abdominals and improve respiratory function. Make sure to get clearance from your doctor first. Start easy and gradually increase the intensity of exercise to prevent overworking your respiratory system.

Spinal Cord Injury and Breathing: Summary

Those with cervical or thoracic spinal cord injuries will likely experience some sort of breathing impairment.

Breathing difficulties after spinal cord injury are caused by paralysis of the diaphragm, intercostals, or abdominal muscles.

Respiratory complications like pneumonia, sleep apnea, and atelectasis are very common and are the leading cause of death in spinal cord injury patients.

If you notice breathing difficulties following your spinal cord injury, seek medical attention immediately.

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand how a spinal cord injury can affect your breathing and what you can do about it. Good luck!

More Ways to Recover with Flint Rehab:

Step 1: Download Free Rehab Exercises

stroke exercise ebook

Step 2: Discover Award-Winning Neurorehab Tools

Step 3: See What Other Survivors Are Saying

More Ways to Recover with Flint Rehab:

Step 1: Download Free Rehab Exercises

stroke exercise ebook

Step 2: Discover Award-Winning Neurorehab Tools

Step 3: See What Other Survivors Are Saying