Heart Disease Risk for Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury

Why does a person who has suffered a spinal cord injury often become much more susceptible to heart disease?

heart disease riskA new study undertaken at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation seeks to answer this question. The answer may lie in a previously less emphasized area–autonomic nervous system pathways disrupted by spinal cord injury (SCI).

Autonomic pathways serve involuntary functions of the internal body, involving organs of respiration, digestion, elimination, circulation. Lungs, heart, stomach, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, spleen, intestines, blood and lymph vessels, reproductive organs, glands.  All structures and functions unseen by the eyes are maintained by autonomic nerve pathways which travel from the brain through the spine to the internal body.

The research was targeted specifically to heart disease, which affects people with spinal cord injury disproportionately, and at a younger age than the general population.

The study involved assessments of a control group of 14 able-bodied persons and another group of 20 persons who have sustained SCI. The group of 20 was further subdivided into those who had sustained autonomic pathway disruption with those who had not.

Conclusive findings showed that while both SCI groups had high cholesterol, the group with autonomic nerve pathway disruption had considerably less glucose tolerance and greater overall fat and abdominal fat, putting them in a prediabetic state, a known factor in increasing heart disease risk.

Also noteworthy, the SCI control group with autonomic pathway disruption showed less normal indicators of internal functioning overall, even with a healthy lifestyle including exercise. It remains inconclusive at this stage whether patients’ pattern of internal dysfunction is due solely to such disruption, or to patient characteristics after such an injury.

While there is clearly a requirement for more independent research, the study points to a directive–more thorough screening of patients with spinal cord injury. In addition to measuring of sensory and motor damage, patients should be tested for autonomic nerve functioning after an injury.

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