Cardiovascular Dysfunctions after Spinal Cord Injury

By: Dr. Sonia Lal Gupta and Dr. Sameer Gupta

In common parlance, the functions performed by the spinal cord appear to be limited and restricted to the brain. Little is often said about the magnanimity of its functions. The spinal cord bears life; it is the powerhouse of the body. Any factor that potentially threatens to damage the components of the spinal cord could be fatal. According to the WHO, between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer from Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) annually. At such an accelerated rate, it becomes imperative to analyze the consequences of the injury.

Cardiovascular Dysfunction

Amidst the wide spectra of changes that a damaged cord imposes, cardiovascular dysfunction constitutes one of those. Cardiovascular dysfunction is a symptom of a broader cause. It could encompass blocked blood vessels, an abnormal heartbeat or weak heart muscles. In order to examine the magnitude of impact of a Spinal cord injury on the heart, it is crucial to assess the extent of damage to the Spine and its nerve fibers. The Spinal cord consists of a small number of fibers for the heart to function to its optimum capacity, which if damaged, can wreak havoc for the heart health.

Unraveling the multifaceted impact

The spinal cord houses the body’s autonomic nervous system, responsible for involuntary actions in the body, including the functioning of the heart. These actions are uncontrollable. In case the autonomic system is subject to any disruption; the heart becomes an indirect victim, disrupting the functions of its blood vessels. Hypertension becomes inevitable due to an autonomic dysreflexia. Medically speaking, a dysreflexia is the heightened response of the sympathetic nervous system to potentially threatening stimuli. Hypertension can be a burgeoning factor leading to heart disease, failure, and even a stroke. The loss of control over the nervous system results in a postural hypotension. It is the sudden dip in blood pressure upon body movement, such as standing up after laying in bed for long. A traumatic SCI results in the weakening of muscles, which are carriers of blood to the heart.

Immobility and the heart

Another binding factor that makes the spinal cord and cardiovascular system inextricably woven is inactivity. Lack of physical activity post spinal injury negatively impacts the heart’s ability to function appropriately. A Canadian research affirmed that a Spinal cord injury affects the heart almost in the same manner as smoking does.

A visit in time saves lives

As a prelude to diagnose the implications on the heart, the extent of spinal injury must be gauged. Once the injury has been classified as incomplete or complete, its enormity will determine the eventual impact on the cardiovascular system. While symptoms may not always raise alarms, a visit to the doctor eradicates doubts and ensures timely diagnosis, followed by treatment.

Dr. Sameer Gupta FACC, FSCAI, Diplomate, National Board of Echocardiography (USA)
Dr. Gupta, awarded the status of “Extraordinary Ability and Achievement” by the United States Government in 2013, is a highly skilled cardiologist specializing in Interventional cardiovascular and peripheral procedures. A native of New Delhi, Dr Gupta spent 10 years in USA to accumulate knowledge, experience & awards returning to India to deliver world-class health care to his country and serve its people.
Dr. Sonia Lal Gupta, MBBS, Diplomate of American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
Sonia Lal Gupta MD is a highly qualified Board Certified Neurologist. After completing her MBBS from Government Medical College Patiala, she pursued Neurology at New York Medical College. She graduated in 2011 becoming one of the youngest neurologists in the world at the age of 27.

Image: Dr. Karyn Marshall demonstrates what a healthy spine should look like by using a model. The vertebrae (white) should be aligned and should not be pinching any nerves. Source/Author: Own work/Tomwsulcer. Date: 24 March 2011. Access the original Image information here: