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5 Spinal Cord Injury Respiratory Complications & How to Manage Them

spinal cord injury respiratory complications

The leading cause of death in spinal cord injury patients is respiratory complications.

This article will go over the 5 most common spinal cord injury respiratory complications and how to best manage them.

Spinal Cord Injury Respiratory Complications

importance of abdominal muscles for coughing

Respiratory complications after spinal cord injury occur because the muscles responsible for breathing get paralyzed.

Although spinal cord injury doesn’t directly affect the lungs, weak respiratory muscles reduce lung volume and make it difficult to breathe.

1. Respiratory Failure

Breathing helps bring oxygen into the body and remove CO2.

Respiratory failure is when your blood doesn’t have enough oxygen and/or too much CO2.

Without enough oxygen or with too much CO2, your organs become weak and don’t function properly.

This can result in difficulties breathing, a blue tint around the face, and disorientation.

Causes of respiratory failure include pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and atelectasis.

2. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is the most common cause of death for spinal cord injury patients.

It’s caused by respiratory infection and occurs when secretions fill the air sacs in your lungs.

SCI patients often have too weak of a cough to get rid of secretion buildup.

Those with pneumonia may experience shortness of breath, pale skin, fever, and excessive congestion.

Patients generally respond well to antibiotics, but alternative treatments include suctioning, quad coughing, and air-pressurizing technologies.

3. Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism is when a blood clot blocks the arteries in your lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

Your heart pumps blood to the lungs, where it is oxygenated and returned to the heart to get pumped throughout the rest of the body.

During pulmonary embolism, blood flow is cut off and can’t get oxygenated. This results in low oxygen levels in your blood, which ultimately causes your organs not to function properly.

After pneumonia, pulmonary embolism is the second leading cause of death in spinal cord injury patients.

Treatment typically consists of using blood thinners.

4. Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is when your breathing becomes unstable during sleep.

This causes many you wake up multiple times throughout the night and fail to get a full night’s rest.

Those with sleep apnea usually experience snoring and sleepiness during the day.

The respiratory system already works harder while you’re sleeping, but with spinal cord injury, muscle weakness and low lung volume make it even more challenging to breathe.

Sleep apnea treatment usually involves the use of a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP) that supplies pressurized air into your airways while you sleep.

5. Atelectasis

Atelectasis is when one of your lungs collapses because it is not getting enough air.

This is attributed to low lung volume following spinal cord injury.

Atelectasis can cause dyspnea, pneumonia, and respiratory failure; however, on its own, atelectasis is asymptomatic.

The best way to treat atelectasis is to practice breathing and coughing exercises to expand lung volume.

How Level of Spinal Cord Injury Affects Breathing

respiratory complications after spinal cord injury

Breathing problems after spinal cord injury are extremely common in individuals with quadriplegia.

The higher your level of injury, the greater the loss of respiratory muscle control.

Your C3, C4, and C5 nerves control the diaphragm, which is the primary muscle used for breathing.

Spinal cord injury causes paralysis not only to the level of injury but also to the areas below, which is why a C1 or C2 injury can completely cut off diaphragm control.

Cervical injuries to levels C1-C3 can be fatal if not given immediate medical attention.

Injury to these higher-level cervical regions requires assisted ventilation to restore breathing.

Respiratory complications after spinal cord injury are most common after cervical injuries, but can also result from thoracic injuries.

Your thoracic nerves mostly control the muscles in your trunk.

Without motor control over your abdominal muscles, your cough becomes weak and cannot clear lung secretions.

Tips for Managing Spinal Cord Injury Respiratory Complications

drinking waters will help you manage spinal cord injury respiratory complications by thinning out secretions, which makes them easier to cough up.

1. Practice Breathing and Coughing Exercises: Practicing breathing exercises will help you expand your lung volume while practicing coughing exercises will help clear your lungs of secretions.

2. Eat a Healthy Diet and Manage Your Weight: Those who are overweight are more likely to experience spinal cord injury respiratory complications.

3. Quit Smoking: Smoking can cause cancer and is very harmful to the lungs. Smoking also increases the chances of respiratory infections that cause pneumonia.

4. Drink Lots of Water: Water will help thin out secretions which makes them easier to cough out.

5. Exercise Regularly: Exercise can help you control your breathing but be sure to consult with a doctor to make sure it’s safe for your specific condition.

The best way to manage respiratory complications is to spot them quickly and seek medical attention before they worsen.

Hopefully, this article raised your awareness of respiratory complications and the importance of maintaining respiratory health after SCI.

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