Respiratory Health After Spinal Cord Injury


After experiencing a spinal cord injury, many secondary health issues can develop, and it’s important to take precautions to prevent them from arising and to learn how to effectively combat them when they do.

Some issues commonly experienced by people with SCI, especially those with cervical injuries, involve respiratory health.

That’s because injuries to these high vertebrae affect the strength of the diaphragm and the ability to cough. Lung congestion can be very dangerous when the individual lacks the ability to cough independently.

Lung congestion after spinal cord injury

Sometimes people with cervical injuries have a tracheostomy, and use it for purposes of deep suction to clear bronchial secretions. While this method is typically effective, the presence of a tracheostomy actually impairs the cough reflex and may increase mucus production.

Your pulmonologist may decide that the tracheostomy is no longer necessary after acute hospitalization and some rehabilitation, even if you’re unable to cough up mucus independently.

Multiple cough assist techniques can be learned by caregivers in order to help people with SCI remove mucus.

The manual “quad cough” applies firm and rapid pressure to the abdomen to force air out of the lungs.

Then there’s the mechanical cough machine which helps to clear secretions by applying a positive pressure to fill the lungs, then quickly switching to a negative pressure to produce a high expiratory flow rate and simulate a cough.

Preventing respiratory infection

Always avoid prolonged contact with people who are sick and stay current on your recommended vaccines, especially for influenza and COVID-19.

Make sure your caregivers wash their hands, use gloves, and practice good hygiene.

Avoid smoking; there is sufficient evidence that smoking increases the risk and recurrence rate of upper respiratory tract infections.

In the winter, cold temperatures blunt the immune response elicited by the upper respiratory tract to viruses, resulting in increased susceptibility to infection. Take extra care in winter months!

Take vitamins, eat healthy, drink plenty of water, and visit your doctor for an antibiotic if you’re experiencing congestion!