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Cognitive Effects of Spinal Cord Injury: Can SCI Affect Your Thoughts?

understanding the cognitive effects of spinal cord injury

Can spinal cord injury affect cognitive functions?

Cognition is a function of the brain, so it will not be directly affected by damage to the spinal cord.

However, complications caused by damage to the spinal cord can affect cognitive functions like memory, problem-solving, and focus.

To help you understand how spinal cord injury can affect functions of the brain, we’ll go over the relationship between the brain and spinal cord, and conditions that can impair cognition.

How Does Spinal Cord Injury Affect the Brain?

While spinal cord injury directly affects the spinal cord, it also indirectly affects the brain.

The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord.

Sensory stimuli travel from the body, up the spinal cord, to the brain.

The brain then analyzes the information and sends motor signals back down the spinal cord to the body.

After a spinal cord injury, not all these messages will travel to their desired destination.

The endpoints (the brain and body) are fine, but the pathway in between them (the spinal cord) is damaged.

The result is that the body won’t function according to the brain.

Cognitive Effects of Spinal Cord Injury

Studies on cognitive health after spinal cord injury indicate that up to 64% of individuals have some form of cognitive impairment.

It’s also suggested that spinal cord injury patients are about 13x more likely to experience cognitive impairments than able-bodied individuals.

8 Factors That Can Impair Cognition After Spinal Cord Injury

Some conditions that increase the risk of cognitive impairment after spinal cord injury include:

1. Emotional Distress

emotional problems cognitive effects of spinal cord injury

Many spinal cord injury patients experience difficulties adjusting to life after SCI, which can take a toll on their mental health.

In fact, spinal cord injury patients are more likely to develop psychological problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population.

The cognitive implications of mental distress include:

  • negative thinking
  • inability to focus
  • lack of interest
  • poor judgment
  • impaired memory

2. Pain

spinal cord injury pain interferes with cognitive performance

©iStock.com/fizkes

We all know how distracting pain can be.

Pain can drastically affect attention and memory, which prevents you from going about your everyday life.

When you’re constantly in pain, you’re not yourself. You’re more irritable, less likely to listen, and unable to think straight.

3. Sleep Problems

sleeping problems after spinal cord injury causing cognitive impairment

Many spinal cord injury patients experience difficulties staying asleep at night. Higher-level SCIs can result in breathing problems.

Sleep apnea is when your breathing becomes unstable during sleep, which can cause you to wake up multiple times throughout the night.

Insufficient sleep can disrupt alertness, memory, and concentration during the day.

4. Medications

medication side effects spinal cord injury cognitive effects

Managing spinal cord injury complications can require taking lots of different medicines.

Medications change the chemical balance in your brain and body, so it makes sense that their side effects can interfere with cognitive performance.

5. Alcohol and Substance Abuse

does alcohol consumption after spinal cord injury affect the brain

©iStock.com/itakdalee

While turning to alcohol or other substances can provide temporary comfort, they can also impair cognitive functions long-term.

Heavy alcohol consumption can damage neurons.

This study found that the size of your hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning) was related to the amount of alcohol people consumed.

The more people drank, the more likely their hippocampi were to shrink over time.

6. Poor Cardiovascular Health

does heart health affect cognitive effects of spinal cord injury

©iStock.com/RTimages

Many spinal cord injury patients experience irregular blood pressure.

Poor cardiovascular health can restrict the amount of blood that circulates throughout your body.

Blood is rich in oxygen and nutrients that fuel cellular activity and keep our bodies and minds in tip-top shape.

Lack of blood flow to the brain can cause brain fog and harm cognitive performance.

7. Age

cognitive impairment more common in older spinal cord injury patients

Whether you have a spinal cord injury or not, increasing age is correlated to decreasing cognition.

However, spinal cord injury patients may experience accelerated aging after their injury due to the strain their sensorimotor impairments place on their minds and bodies.

The body of a paralyzed person must work much harder than an able-bodied person, which results in increased levels of fatigue, which contribute to aging at a quicker rate.

8. Co-Occurring TBI

tbi and sci cognitive effects

Generally, incidents that cause spinal cord injuries can also cause traumatic brain injuries (TBI).

For example, if you get into a car accident, hyperextension of the neck can cause spinal cord injury, and hitting your head on the window can cause TBI.

Depending on the location of your traumatic brain injury, cognitive functions can be drastically impaired.

Up to 59% of spinal cord injury patients also experience TBI.

Understanding Spinal Cord Injury and Cognitive Impairment

As you just learned, a lot of these factors are interrelated, so the best way to promote cognitive health after spinal cord injury to take a holistic approach and focus on overall wellbeing.

By making healthy decisions throughout the day, you can keep both your mind and body in optimal shape!

Hopefully, this article helped you better understand how a spinal cord injury can affect cognitive function. Good luck!

Featured image: ©iStock.com/michaelpuche

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