Secondary Conditions Associated with Spinal Cord Injuries

Secondary Conditions Associated With Spinal Cord Injuries

A spinal cord injury (SCI) can affect the body in a range of different ways. We usually associate this type of injury with a reduction in mobility and loss of sensation below the level where the damage was sustained. However, there are numerous other problems that can arise which will present challenges to the individual whose spine has been damaged.

Here we take a looks at secondary health issues which can occur as a result of sustaining a spinal cord injury and what they mean for the affected individual.

Autonomic Dysreflexia

Autonomic dysreflexia generally affects those with damage to their spinal cord above the T6 (thoracic) level. It is a potentially life-threatening issue which affects blood pressure and increases the potential risk of stroke.

Autonomic dysreflexia may be set off by irritations below the level of the injury such as bowel or bladder pressure but can also be caused by something as simple as clothing being too tight.

Bladder Issues

Bladder problems are very common in individuals with spinal cord injuries. A lot depends on where the damage has occurred but full paralysis will certainly cause issues with bladder control.

A neurogenic bladder may mean that an individual is unable to control going to the toilet and some form of management needs to be undertaken to avoid accidents.

Bowel Issues

Bowel problems following a spinal cord injury

As with bladder issues, individuals with spinal cord injuries might also have problems regarding their bowel movements. Complications range from constipation to unwanted accidents because the process of evacuating the bowel cannot be controlled properly.

Bowel management techniques will help individuals cope with this issue and there are plenty of different options to choose from.

Deep Vein Thrombosis

Lack of movement because of paralysis following a spinal cord injury has the potential to cause deep vein thrombosis (DVT), especially in the early stages of treatment while an individual is still in the hospital.

These risks can remain when the individual is in recovery and has returned home. Careful monitoring and the use of anticoagulants may be needed to manage this particular issue.

Chronic Pain

Some people who have a spinal cord injury will need to cope with long-term chronic pain. The type and severity will vary depending on the nature of the injury but there are many different approaches than can help manage pain, both in the long and short term.

Respiratory Issues

Paralysis can affect the muscles in the diaphragm, chest and abdomen which all play a role in breathing. This can mean that many people with spinal cord injuries have to face the challenge of respiratory issues, although much depends on the severity of the damage and the level of the injury.

Options such as maintaining a correct posture and exercising regularly can help ease symptoms for many people with a spinal cord injury as well as using mechanical ventilators to ease breathing.


Sepsis symptoms infographic

This is essentially blood poisoning and happens when the immune system starts to attack the organs within the body. An infection can start in somewhere like the urinary tract, for example, and then spread throughout the body. 

If sepsis is allowed to spread and take hold, it can have catastrophic consequences that eventually lead to multiple organ failure and death.

Poor Skin Health

With a limited range of mobility and poor sensation in certain parts of the body, skin health is important for those with a spinal cord injury. Pressure sores can easily develop and cuts and bruises may go unnoticed and become infected.

Careful monitoring of skin health is an important part of daily life following a spinal cord injury and individuals are taught early in rehabilitation to get into good habits. Pressure ulcers, when unnoticed, damage the skin but also may become infected causing further problems if left untreated.


Spasticity is a relatively common secondary symptom following a spinal cord injury and paralysis. It can range from stiffness in the muscle of a particular part of the body to uncontrollable and often violent movements in areas such as the legs.

This is caused when the normal connection between the brain and nerves that control movement is damaged. Changes in levels of spasticity may also be a sign that something is wrong and careful management and monitoring is needed.

Many Issues to Contend With

Dealing with secondary health issues which arise as a result of sustaining a spinal cord injury can be a challenge. The good news is that spinal cord injury care for has improved dramatically over the last couple of decades and there is much more information available now to help. With the right support and understanding, many of these challenges can be overcome.