Individuals with a spinal cord injury are at increased risk for developing respiratory complications. Any loss of respiratory muscle control weakens the pulmonary system, decreases one's lung capacity, and increases respiratory congestion. It does not matter what the level of injury or if the injury is complete or incomplete. However, the risk for complications is greater for persons with a complete injury and for persons with tetraplegia. For persons with high level tetraplegia (C5-C1), ventilatory failure is a common complication after injury. The person typically lacks the ability to breathe without assistance. Another common problem is atelectasis. This is when the lungs partially collapse because not enough air is getting into the lungs.
All levels of injury are at risk for pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the blood vessels of the lungs. This is the primary disease of pulmonary circulation and the second leading cause of death for persons with SCI within the first year after their injury. Ventilatory failure, atelectasis and pulmonary embolism are all very serious, life-threatening respiratory complications. However, pneumonia is the leading cause of death for all persons with spinal cord injury. This is true regardless of your level of injury or how long you have been injured. Therefore, be aware of the symptoms for pneumonia. They include shortness of breath, having pale skin, a fever, along with a feeling of heavy chest and an increase in congestion. If you have symptoms of pneumonia, call a doctor immediately for advice on treatment.
Steps to prevent respiratory complications include:
Sleep apnea is a growing respiratory concern for persons with spinal cord injury. Sleep apnea is a type of breathing disorder. Typically, it is a stop in breathing during sleep. However, apnea can include other respiratory difficulties. Increased research in this area suggests that persons with weakened respiratory muscles may be at high risk for developing sleep apnea, so persons who are older and persons with tetraplegia may be at a very high risk. Symptoms include irregular breathing or snoring, daytime sleepiness, problems with memory or concentration, waking up often during the night, and waking up tired or with a headache. If you think you may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor for advice on treatment.
A number of respiratory complications can occur after spinal cord injury. This places all individuals at risk for developing complications regardless of level of injury or whether the injury is complete or incomplete. Therefore, it is important to understand these potential respiratory complications and what you can do to help prevent them from developing.