Spinal cord injury body temperature regulation

Body Temperature Regulation Following a Spinal Cord Injury

A spinal cord injury is likely to affect the human body in a number of different ways. Reduced mobility is perhaps the most obvious issue that an individual will have to deal with following a spinal cord injury, but there are many other challenges they may have to face and changes in their body which they will experience.

A lot will depend on the severity and the level of the spinal cord injury. Bowel and bladder control may be affected and the individual may also experience muscle spasms and have impaired sexual function.

Another issue that often arises following a spinal cord injury is body temperature regulation. This is particularly true for cervical and high thoracic (T6 or above) injuries.

Here we take a closer look at body temperature regulation and how this can be impacted by an injury to the spinal cord.

How Can Body Temperature Regulation be Affected by a Spinal Cord Injury?

Many people don’t realize just how important temperature regulation is for the body to be able to function normally.

Much of the time thermoregulation takes place without us hardly realizing it is going on. We sweat when we exercise or when it’s hot outside. Our faces get red as we try to lose more heat. Our blood vessels reduce in size when we need to retain heat in cold weather.

Every moment of everyday, our bodies are making minor adjustments to ensure optimal performance. If we are unable to regulate body temperature in extreme circumstances, it can cause significant health problems.

As part of thermoregulation, one needs to be able to feel when it is getting too cold or too hot. Normally, signals will be sent up and down the spinal cord to the hypothalamus in the brain. When we get too hot, we find a way to cool off. Too cold and we put on an extra jumper or two.

When this connection is severed, individuals may have to take a more direct role regarding body temperature regulation. It often means that they have to be a lot more aware about the potential affects of body temperature. This is particularly true with injuries that occur higher up the spinal cord and where a greater amount of the body is affected.

Signs and Symptoms Associated with Thermoregulation Issues

Disabled woman with headache

A individual with a spinal cord injury may experience something like sweating disturbance. Because the body can’t regulate temperature, it can mean the individual gets too hot or too cold without any physical intervention. That can lead to conditions such as hypothermia, if they doesn’t realize they are in a potentially dangerous situation.

In some cases, sweating occurs above the level of injury but not below, for example. This can make it difficult for body temperature regulation, especially during exercise.

Symptoms that suggest the body may be struggling with thermoregulation include:

  • Feeling dizzy or sick during hot weather
  • Headaches
  • In cold weather, the individual may feel chilled but is unable to shiver or the arteries don’t constrict to save heat.

Prevention and Management Tips

The management of body temperature regulation for individuals with a spinal cord injury is largely focussed on awareness. It means carefully controlling the surrounding environment and understanding the risks that are involved.

  • In hot weather, that means not staying out too long and avoiding direct sunlight.
  • Lack of sensation can also mean that individuals are more prone to sunburn.
  • Drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated in hot weather is also important.

In colder weather, it’s all about ensuring the individual is wearing sufficient clothing to keep them warm. This can be a difficult balancing act in some weather conditions as it’s also important to avoid overheating too. In particular, during extreme weather ensuring that extremities like the hands and feet are covered with gloves and socks and kept dry is important.

Glass of water

If the individual is too hot and the temperature needs to be brought down, there are a number of things that can be done immediately. The first is to get out of the hot weather and find somewhere cool, such as an air-conditioned room or a place with a fan. Remove any clothing that may be too hot and sponge off the body with cold water.

Drinking more fluids can also help. If the individual is too cold and the body temperature is low, it’s important to start warming the individual up as quickly as possible.

Again, find a warm room and use a blanket or two to help bring the body temperature up. If there is extreme cold, lying close to the person and exchanging body heat can also help.