At first, changes in the way your body functions may be overwhelming. However, your rehabilitation team will help you develop the strategies you need to address the changes caused by the spinal cord injury. Areas often affected include:
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- Bladder control. Your bladder will continue to store urine from your kidneys. However, your brain may not be able to control your bladder as well because the message carrier (the spinal cord) has been injured. The changes in bladder control increase your risk of urinary tract infections. They also may cause kidney infections and kidney or bladder stones. Drinking plenty of clear fluids may help. During rehabilitation, you'll learn new techniques to help empty your bladder.
- Bowel control. Although your stomach and intestines work much like they did before your injury, control of your bowel movements is often altered. A high-fiber diet may help regulate your bowels, and you'll learn techniques to optimize your bowel function during rehabilitation.
- Skin sensation. Below the neurological level of your injury, you may have lost part or all skin sensations. Therefore, your skin can't send a message to your brain when it's injured by things such as prolonged pressure, heat or cold. This can make you more susceptible to pressure sores, but changing positions frequently — with help, if needed — can help prevent these sores. You'll learn proper skin care during rehabilitation, which can help you avoid these problems.
- Circulatory control. A spinal cord injury may cause circulatory problems ranging from low blood pressure when you rise (orthostatic hypotension) to swelling of your extremities. These circulation changes also may increase your risk of developing blood clots, such as deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolus. Another problem with circulatory control is a potentially life-threatening rise in blood pressure (autonomic hyperreflexia). Your rehabilitation team will teach you how to address these problems if they affect you.
- Respiratory system. Your injury may make it more difficult to breathe and cough if your abdominal and chest muscles are affected. These include the diaphragm and the muscles in your chest wall and abdomen. Your neurological level of injury will determine what kind of breathing problems you may have. If you have cervical and thoracic spinal cord injury, you may have an increased risk of pneumonia or other lung problems. Medications and therapy can treat these problems.
- Muscle tone. Some people with a spinal cord injury experience one of two types of muscle tone problems: uncontrolled tightening or motion in the muscles (spasticity) or soft and limp muscles, lacking muscle tone (flaccidity).
- Fitness and wellness. Weight loss and muscle atrophy are common soon after a spinal cord injury. Limited mobility may lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, placing you at risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. A dietitian can help you eat a nutritious diet to sustain an adequate weight. Physical and occupational therapists can help you develop a fitness and exercise program.
Sexual health. Sexuality, fertility and sexual function may be affected by spinal cord injury. Men may notice changes in erection and ejaculation; women may notice changes in lubrication. A spinal cord injury may cause decreased or absent sensation and movement below the level of injury, but a person may notice a heightened sensitivity in areas above the level of injury. Doctors, urologists and fertility specialists who specialize in spinal cord injury can offer options for sexual functioning and fertility.
There's usually no physical change in women with a spinal cord injury that inhibits sexual intercourse or pregnancy. Most women with a spinal cord injury can experience labor, have a normal delivery and breast-feed.
- Pain. Some people experience pain, such as muscle or joint pain, from overuse of particular muscle groups. Nerve pain, also known as neuropathic or central pain, can occur after a spinal cord injury, especially in someone with an incomplete injury.
- Depression. Coping with all the changes spinal cord injury brings and living with pain causes some people to experience depression.
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