Injury to your spinal cord can affect a lot of different body functions like breathing and blood pressure. Here’s a list of 15 spinal cord injury side effects you may experience and how to combat them.
Spinal Cord Injury Side Effects
Side effects can present themselves even years after the injury, so it’s important to be aware of potential risks and implement practices to prevent them.
One of the most common spinal cord injury side effects is spasticity.
It’s when your spinal cord tells your muscles to contract as a safety mechanism since the connection to the brain has been disrupted.
This muscle tightness can cause spasms and pain in areas where you have little or no motor function.
You can prevent and treat spasticity by stretching daily and keeping your muscles as limber as possible.
If you don’t have control over your limbs, you can still do passive range of motion exercises to ensure that your joints are being used to their full potential.
2. Osteoporosis/ Fractured Bones
Our bones are constantly breaking and reforming.
Osteoporosis is when your bones break down at a faster rate than they’re rebuilding, so they become thinner and more likely to fracture.
After spinal cord injury, you slowly start to lose bone density.
Osteoporosis and lack of physical activity are related and because many spinal cord injury patients don’t bear weight like they used to, the bones get weaker.
Incorporate more calcium and vitamin D into your diet. They’re essential for building and maintaining strong bones.
Also, try to incorporate more weight-bearing exercises into your routine to build bone density. However, do this gradually to prevent putting too much stress on weak bones.
Doctors can prescribe medications to slow down bone breakdown as well.
We also highly recommend to quit smoking cigarettes because they accelerate bone loss.
3. Neurogenic Heterotopic Ossification
Neurogenic heterotopic ossification is when there’s abnormal bone growth in your soft tissues below the level of injury.
It occurs because signals in the body get mixed up and the bone cells make bones where they shouldn’t be.
A common symptom is muscle joint pain and stiffness.
Radiation therapy is performed to help prevent heterotopic ossification. It works by preventing further cell division.
If the bone growth prevents joint motion or other bodily functions, it will need to be surgically removed.
4. Weight Gain/ Weight Loss
Weight gain and weight loss are both common spinal cord injury side effects. It depends mostly on how you handle stress.
You’ll initially lose a good amount of weight after spinal cord injury because of reduced bone and muscle density.
However, paralysis will cause you to move less than you used to, so you won’t be using as much energy. This means that you’ll likely have to eat less than before you injury to maintain your weight.
Everybody responds to stress differently. Some eat more while others eat less. Spinal cord injury can be a huge stress trigger so be on alert.
As we mentioned earlier, be on alert and notice when you’re emotionally reacting.
If you’re prone to overeat, be sure to implement an exercise routine for spinal cord injury that keeps you active.
If you’re prone to undereating, realize that you need to feed your body to recover. Not enough nutrients will cause all your muscles and bones to weaken and make recovery more difficult.
Make sure that you’re eating these nutrient-dense foods to protect your cells and promote growth.
5. Anxiety and Depression
First and foremost, we want to emphasize that depression is not just a state of mind that you can easily change and that it is not your fault.
Any sort of nerve damage is going to require major life adjustments.
Depression and anxiety can take a huge toll on your eating habits, sleep patterns, energy, and overall outlook on life.
Make sure that you’re exercising. It will get your heart pumping and get more oxygen to your brain, which will increase serotonin levels and uplift your mood.
Refer to these articles on exercising with spinal cord injury for ideas and inspiration:
Consider asking your physician about antidepressants to help balance the neurotransmitter levels in your brain.
Going to therapy or counseling sessions can also help you work through depression and improve your perception of life with spinal cord injury.
6. Loss of Bladder and Bowel Control
Dysfunction of the muscles of your bladder can cause urinary tract infections and difficulty urinating.
Neurogenic bowel is when you lose normal bowel function due to nerve damage.
Loss of bladder and bowel control can cause constipation, diarrhea, and stomach pain.
Because it becomes more difficult to control and sense these functions, spinal cord injury patients are prone to urine and waste-related accidents.
Drinking more water will help with the fluidity of your stool as well as eating foods high in fiber.
Developing strong core muscles will also help make it easier to push stool out.
Catheters can be inserted into your body to manually empty the bladder. They should be emptied roughly every 4-6 hours.
You can also take medications to better manage bowel and bladder movements, just keep in mind that you can build a tolerance to laxatives and that they do often come with unfavorable side-effects.
7. Sexual Dysfunction
Sexual function can be affected just as easily as bladder and bowel functions after spinal cord injury.
Most men wonder if they can still get erections. This depends on the severity of your injury and varies from person to person.
You can typically get an erection in 3 different ways: from your thoughts, from touch, and sometimes just randomly like when your bladder is full.
Although many spinal cord injury patients can still get erections from touch and other bodily stimulations, it is unlikely to get one just from your thoughts because that connection has been disrupted.
Yes, it’s possible to get pregnant with spinal cord injury. Your periods may stop temporarily due to spinal shock.
The vagina may not be able to lubricate naturally so to prevent irritation or pain, use a water-based lubricant.
A lot of spinal cord injury patients worry about bowel and bladder accidents during intercourse. This can easily be prevented by emptying the bladder or bowel before any sexual activity.
Oral medications like Viagra are the most popular treatment for erectile dysfunction.
There’s also vacuum therapy, which manually pumps blood into the penis.
You really just have to go for the trial and error method and see what works for you.
8. Autonomic Dysreflexia/ Hypertension
Autonomic dysreflexia is when you experience sudden bursts of high blood pressure (hypertension) due to a stimulus.
Causes include full bladders/bowels, extreme temperatures, tight clothes, and skin irritation.
Because your sensory neurons can’t reach the brain, it overreacts and triggers high blood pressure. This typically occurs in patients with a T6 injury or above.
Autonomic dysreflexia can usually be easily treated and prevented.
Be aware our your bladder patterns and be sure to empty it often enough.
Don’t wear tight clothes and try to sit up, keeping the head elevated.
You might even want to monitor your heart rate from time to time just to see what actions can trigger hypertension in your body.
Experiencing chronic pain after spinal cord injury is common and often lasts a while.
Like numbness and tingling, it involves a problem with sensory receptors reaching the brain.
There are 3 types of pain after spinal cord injury you might experience:
- Musculoskeletal: due to overuse of bones/muscles/joints or from muscle spasms/ spasticity
- Visceral: is pain from your internal organs near the abdominal area
- Neuropathic: have to do with nerve damage and can often be felt even in places where you don’t have other sensations
Electrical stimulation can relieve chronic pain by stimulating pathways in the cerebral cortex.
Oral medications are also used and range from everyday pain-relievers you can pick up at your local store like Tylenol and Advil to more heavy duty opioids that require a prescription.
10. Pressure Sores/ Ulcers
Ever realize how when you sit for too long in one position that you feel the urge to move or change positions?
A lot of people with spinal cord injury don’t feel that urge and therefore have too much weight bearing down on their skin for too long, which limits blood flow and causes pressure sores.
Be sure to inspect your skin in areas with low sensation often and try to move around more often to improve blood circulation.
If you injure the upper part of your spinal cord, it is likely that your diaphragm and core muscles will become weaker and make it difficult to breathe.
If your level of injury is C3-C5, you may need the assistance of a ventilator to breathe regularly.
Pneumonia occurs when your lungs fill with secretions leading to phlegm-filled coughs.
Spinal cord injury can allow for the infection to worsen due to lack of control over breathing and coughing.
Drink plenty of water to flush out your system and thin out secretions.
Patients typically respond well to antibiotic treatments.
12. Sleep Apnea
A study found that the majority of spinal cord injury patient have disordered breathing when they sleep.
Sleep apnea is when someone experiences pauses in their breathing while sleeping.
This results in low sleep quality overnight and extreme tiredness throughout the day
The most popular treatment for sleep apnea is to use a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) that blows pressurized air to keep your airway open while you’re sleeping.
Atelectasis is when your lung collapses because it can’t expand fully while breathing.
A weak diaphragm can make it difficult to take a full breath as well as any sort of secretion buildup.
Practice deep breathing exercises to increase lung volume and coughing exercises to remove mucus.
You might need to use a breathing device like a CPAP.
14. Orthostatic Hypotension
Orthostatic hypertension is when your blood pressure abnormally drops due to a change in position.
It is particularly common in cervical and upper thoracic spinal cord lesions.
This can cause dizziness and loss of consciousness.
An easy fix will be to add more sodium to your diet because salt helps increase blood pressure.
Sleep with your head elevated. It will increase blood volume.
Make sure to drink enough water to keep blood pressure even and to stand up slowly and cautiously when you get up.
15. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis is when blood clots form in your legs or arms due to lack of movement.
You might experience swelling, pain, or hypotension.
If the clot travels down the bloodstream, it can block the flow to your lungs (pulmonary embolism), brain, or heart.
Physicians will typically prescribe blood thinners to prevent additional clots from forming.
However, they do not get rid of existing clots. Thrombolytics may be prescribed in serious cases of SVT to break up the clots.
Another option is to get a filter implanted into your vein to prevent the clot from moving towards the lungs.