Diabetes risk following a spinal cord injury

Diabetes Risk After a Spinal Cord Injury

There’s no doubt that a spinal cord injury is extremely serious and can affect the body in a number of different ways. However, the challenges that arise are not only related to loss of mobility or sensation.

There are numerous other different health issues that someone with a spinal cord injury may have to contend with. One of these is the enhanced risk of type 2 diabetes, which means that diet and exercise become increasingly important for the individual.

Here we take a closer look at spinal cord injury diabetes, what symptoms an individual needs to look out for and how to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

What is Diabetes?

  • Type 2 diabetes is fast becoming a major health problem across the Western world, including the USA.
  • It accounts for around 90% of the cases of diabetes and usually affects older people.
  • It’s thought that some 25.8 million people in the USA have type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes is a serious health condition where the individual’s blood glucose level is too high. Glucose provides energy, but is controlled by a hormone called insulin. With type 2 diabetes, this hormone doesn’t get produced in high enough quantities or can’t cope with the level of glucose in the body. This means glucose begins to build up in the blood, causing a variety of different health problems.

Type 2 diabetes usually occurs because of ageing, bad eating habits and little or no exercise.

Type 1 diabetes is a rarer medical condition that occurs when someone is unable to produce insulin at all. It usually starts to affect people in their teens.

Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes often doesn’t have any symptoms at all, especially in the early stages. At other times, symptoms can include getting easily dehydrated, having a constant feeling of thirst or needing to urinate a lot. An increased appetite or a change in weight may also be a sign of type 2 diabetes.

For individuals who have sustained a spinal cord injury, diagnosing a condition like type 2 diabetes can actually be quite difficult.

That’s because some of the symptoms associated with the disease may also occur following a spinal cord injury. This includes problems with bladder control. Someone who is fully paralyzed and uses a catheter may find it difficult to identify excess urination.

Risk Factors of Type 2 Diabetes

There are a number of different risk factors associated with type 2 diabetes and the biggest of these is age. Essentially, the older a persons get, the more likely they are to develop diabetes. Other risk factors are play an important role, however.

Being overweight or obese can have a significant impact. If one doesn’t exercise regularly, which may apply to many individuals with paralysis, it increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

There is also a gender difference – women are more likely to develop diabetes than men. Ethnicity is one other important factor, with the disease being more prevalent amongst African Americans, Asians and Latinos.


The old adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ certainly applies to diabetes. It’s important for an individual who has sustained an SCI to be aware of what measures need to be taken to avoid developing type 2 diabetes.

For example, they may have been previously active and burned off their calorific intake without much trouble. Following a spinal cord injury, that may become more difficult and weight gain may occur due to lack of activity.

If the individual is currently overweight, then losing a few pounds greatly improves their chances of not getting diabetes in the first place.

Treatment/Management of Type 2 Diabetes

Management of type 2 diabetes

Better health choices and effective management can help improve the prognosis if an individual with a spinal cord injury is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Whilst some individuals may spend the rest of their lives on medication, others can find solutions such as improving their diet and exercising more, which can often eliminate the disease.

Initial treatment usually involves taking insulin to support the body’s function. Most people with type 2 diabetes will learn to monitor their own blood sugar levels and make adjustments to their lifestyle. Attending a diabetic education session should give the individual all the information they need to get started and there are plenty of support groups, including those specifically set up for individuals with paralysis.

Dietary improvements will include eating at regular times and changing to a healthier, high fiber diet, removing unhealthy options such as sugary and processed foods.

Exercise, especially aerobic activity, not only improves health but can improve glucose tolerance. With a spinal cord injury it can be difficult to find the right approach so it’s important to work with a health professional to find appropriate solutions.

It’s important to watch out for complications with diabetes.

  • It’s a condition that causes issues such as poor blood circulation.
  • Infections can be a problem and injury to the extremities such as fingers and especially toes are often an issue.
  • Regular monitoring helps make sure problems are recognized quickly and treatment undertaken to prevent infection.

Finally, stress may also be a factor in improving diabetes so finding ways to relax is important.