Sepsis spinal cord injury risk

The Risk of Sepsis Following a Spinal Cord Injury

There are a number of secondary medical issues or complications that can arise as a result of a spinal cord injury (SCI). These include bladder and bowel problems, autonomic dysreflexia and spasticity.

Whilst lack of mobility and reduced sensation are often the first issues people consider when thinking about a spinal cord injury, these other complications can also have enormous impacts on the health and wellbeing of the individual.

Among the potential complications that may arise is the threat of sepsis, a life-threatening condition where the immune system actually causes damage to organs in the body.

Here we take a closer look at sepsis following a spinal cord injury, what this means for the individual and how it can be prevented.

What is Sepsis?

Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening condition that arises out of the body’s attempt to fight infection. In normal circumstances, when bacteria or a virus attacks the body, the immune system gets to work to fight it.

Sepsis is basically an overreaction by the normal immune system that affects blood vessels and, in particular, the ability to control bleeding.

In the US alone, over a quarter of a million people die as a result of sepsis each year and many who survive are left disabled. Left untreated, it can cause the breakdown of bodily functions and permanent organ damage.

Sepsis infographic

Sepsis Symptoms

An individual with sepsis will appear to have an infection with an elevated temperature and heart rate. They are also likely to be breathing faster.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy and lack of interest in food.
  • A raised blood sugar level without diabetes being a contributory factor.

The individual may also experience edema, particularly in the extremities and face and neck. They might have an abnormally low temperature and there may be inflammation at the site of infection or on other areas of the body.

Problems maintaining blood pressure and loss of blood flow to the extremities such as fingers are also issues that may arise from spinal cord injury sepsis.

Why are Spinal Cord Injury Patients at Risk of Sepsis?

The potential for sepsis in individuals with a spinal cord injury is higher than in the general population.

For those with paralysis, the most common causes of sepsis result from bedsores and urinary tract infections.

These are two common conditions that individuals with spinal cord injuries have to contend with on a regular basis once they have left hospital. 

Preventing these initial causes of a potential sepsis outbreak is, therefore, a major factor in normal spinal cord injury management. 

Preventing Sepsis

If someone is paralyzed, one of the more common issues to contend with is the development of skin breakdown and sores. These injuries can often go unnoticed because the individual does not have sensation in a particular area of their body.

Pressure sores may quickly become infected and the only way to treat them, once this happens, is through antibiotics. Not only is it necessary to monitor the body for potential problems but the progress of any infection must be handled carefully, particularly with many antibiotic-resistant strains that are now out there.

  • If wounds are noticed, make sure they are cleaned properly and treated.
  • The development of a fever or any of the symptoms above should be investigated.
  • If the wound changes color or begins to smell, it is important to get immediate medical attention.

Urinary tract infections (UTI) are another common challenge for those with SCIs. UTIs are likely to occur on a regular basis and individuals may become resistant to antibiotics.

The first issue is to make sure that a physician does not prescribe antibiotics every time a UTI is perceived or suspected. Often the infection will resolve on its own after a period of time.

Of course, this can be quite worrying if an individual is not used to managing issues such as UTI as it requires being able to monitor and assess things on an ongoing basis. Things can become complicated, for example, if the individual is completely paralyzed and uses a catheter for bladder control.

If sepsis does occur, treatment is generally delivered by experts in a hospital setting which will include administering antibiotics, fluid and oxygen replacement and medication to control insulin and blood pressure levels.

Whilst it can be life-threatening if it occurs, careful monitoring and putting in preventative measures should help maintain good health and reduce the potential for bacterial infections that lead to sepsis.