A severed spinal cord means so much more than just paralysis; it often leads to fatal conditions whose frequency is in proportion to the degree of paralysis.
You may already know that spinal cord injury patients are at high risk for constipation and other GI tract issues, pressure ulcers, sexual dysfunction and chronic pain.
These situations can make life difficult, but are not deadly in and of themselves.
Most Common Causes of Spinal Cord Injury
• Motor vehicle accident (46 percent)
• Fall (22 percent)
• Violence (16 percent)
• Sport (12 percent)
Systemic (throughout the body) complications of severed spinal cords include pneumonia, which can be fatal.
Pressure sores can lead to systemic – and deadly – infections.
But the most common cause of death in people with severed spinal cords and even non-severed-type spinal injuries is cardiovascular disease.
The severity of cardiovascular disease is directly proportional to the degree of the injury.
It’s easy to understand why cardiovascular problems are the top cause of death in those with spinal cord damage; a life of physical inertia is so harmful to the body.
Physical inertia is so detrimental that even in perfectly mobile people, daily excessive sitting can lead to cardiovascular disease, blood clots, insomnia and raises the risk of type II diabetes, stroke and some cancers.
Blood Clots Can Lead to Death
Another leading cause of death in people with severed or injured spinal cords is the deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in a vein.
A DVT itself can’t kill a person, but the issue is that a part or all of it can break off and migrate in seconds to the lungs, where it becomes a pulmonary embolism.
A pulmonary embolism, if large enough, will create a complete barrier to incoming oxygen, cutting off the person’s oxygen supply. Death can occur in a few minutes.
“One of the main risk factors for DVT is immobility,” says Steve Elias, MD, FACS, a vein specialist with Englewood Health in NJ.
“If patients with spinal cord injury can’t move their legs, then the calf muscles can’t pump the blood back to the heart efficiently — and blood clots can develop.
“Immobile patients need to have DVT prophylaxis such as pump devices on their legs and blood thinners if possible.”
Urinary Tract Infection Can Spread
Lastly, a urinary tract infection can become systemic and thus be lethal to the spinal cord injury patient.
Source: Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 2017; 17 (2) DOI: 10.1007/s11910-017-0715-4
Dr. Elias is a leading name in venous disease, minimally invasive vein disease therapy and clinical vein and wound research. Dr. Elias lectures about all aspects of venous disease nationally and internationally.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.