Paraplegia is already a seriously life-altering condition on its own, but is often accompanied by a laundry list of complications that can make a patient’s life a living nightmare. Learn to spot the complications of paraplegia and the best ways to prevent the most severe ones from putting the patient’s life at risk.
Most Common Complications of Paraplegia
The complications of paraplegia, also known as secondary conditions, are numerous and may include both physical and emotional issues such as epilepsy, hearing loss, fatigue, bladder issues, impotence and depression.
Some of the secondary conditions are just a nuisance but a select few can put the patient’s life at risk and are left untreated.
Here are the most common complications of paraplegia in no particular order:
- Back and joint pain
- Pressure sores and skin issues
- Muscle spasms
- Seizures/ Epilepsy
- Heterotopic ossification
- Autonomic dysreflexia (AD)
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Urinary tract infections (UTIs), bladder infections, and bowel management issues
- Impotence and fertility issues
- Pneumonia and other respiratory disease
- Nerve damage in the feet (peripheral neuropathy)
- Hearing loss
- Vision impairment
- Low blood pressure (hypotension)
- Swelling of legs
- Balance and coordination issues
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
Deep vein thrombosis is a life-threatening blood clot that may form in the lower leg or thigh shortly after the injury that caused the paraplegia. Doctors commonly use blood thinners to prevent such blood clots from forming because they can migrate from their place of origin to the lungs causing pulmonary embolism.
This condition is very serious as a third of known cases have resulted in the patient’s sudden death. Sometimes the blood clot required surgery to be removed. DVT may also be a problem long after the initial injury. Graduated compression stockings can keep the risk in check in people with paraplegia.
Autonomic dysreflexia (AD)
Autonomic dysreflexia (AD) is another life-threatening complication of paraplegia that shouldn’t be left untreated. Usually patients with T6 spinal injuries or higher can develop this condition. The good news is that AD is easily prevented and treated. The bad news is that, in the absence of quick intervention, it can lead to serious consequences such as death.
A surefire way to detect AD early is keeping an eye on the patient’s baseline blood pressure. Some of most common symptoms of AD include acute, uncontrolled high blood pressure, sweating, nausea, slow pulse (under 60 bpm), headaches, dizziness, and flushed face. Usually, BP readings within the 20mm and 40mm Hg in adults and around 15mm – 20mm Hg in children above baseline BP may signal AD.
AD is basically an autonomic nervous system overstimulation caused by a stimulus located below the injury, such as an UTI, constipation or impaction, anal infections, pressure sores, infections, burns, ingrown toenails, constricting clothing, blocked catheter, hemorrhoids, erectile dysfunction drugs, etc.
If left unaddressed, AD may lead to sudden death.
Heterotopic ossification is a painful condition that appears in patients with paraplegia caused by spinal injuries. The exact cause is still unknown but inappropriate early treatment that has led to pressure sores and/or urinary tract infections has been often linked to heterotopic ossification. Once established, the condition cannot be treated effectively.
Heterotopic ossification happens when small bone formations develop in non-bony areas, especially in the soft tissue surrounding the joints affected by paralysis. The chief signs and symptoms of the conditions include painful joints, redness, swelling of the joints, and limited mobility.
Pressure sores can also be life-threatening for patients living with paraplegia. They usually develop after certain body parts are under prolonged pressure which cuts the blood supply to those areas. That’s why it is important to help the patient change body position every couple of hours, use massage therapy on the affected areas, keep the skin dry, and wear loose clothing.
Some pressure sores may appear in the wake of a minor skin injury such as a cut or scrape. So, it is critical not to let any skin issues go untreated. Serious pressure sores may result in broken skin down to the muscle or bone, which will require surgery as the patient’s life is at risk.
The complications of paraplegia vary from very mild to extremely severe, affecting each patient differently. While some of these complications may need immediate medical attention to be successfully treated, others may linger longer and may require constant medical care.
For a paraplegic, medical costs and out-of-pocket expenses can quickly add up, especially if a severe complication rears its ugly head. But the good news is that a paraplegia injury lawyer can help hold the people responsible for your diagnosis responsible and force them to shoulder the costs.
Never let any of the more serious complications of paraplegia on our list go untreated.