Applied Evidence

Improving your care of patients with spinal cord injury/disease

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From The Journal of Family Practice | 2016;65(5):302-306,308-309.


Take steps to prevent pneumonia, other respiratory complications

Many people with SCI/D are at high risk for respiratory complications because of their weakened respiratory muscles. This is particularly true for individuals who have injuries occurring above T10; those with injuries that are high on the spinal cord have the highest complication risk.7,8 In fact, pneumonia, atelectasis, and other respiratory complications are the leading causes of mortality in patients with tetraplegia, occurring in 40% to 70% of these patients.7

The diaphragm, innervated by the phrenic nerve (C3-C5), is the primary muscle of inspiration. Accessory muscles of inspiration include the scalenes (C5-C8), sternocleidomastoid and trapezius (C1-C4), and intercostals (T1-T11); whereas forced exhalation (cough) occurs with contraction of the abdominals (T5-T12).9 Diminished inspiration in individuals with higher level lesions can lead to microatelectasis, dyspnea with exertion, and even respiratory insufficiency.

In SCI/D above T8, weakened expiration can severely decrease cough effectiveness and secretion clearance, increasing susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections. In addition, experts have described asthma-like disorders of airway function, particularly in those with higher lesions, due to unopposed parasympathetic innervation of respiratory smooth muscle.10

Use general population guidelines to target antibiotic therapy, as guidelines validated for use in the spinal cord injury/disease population don't exist.

Management of this neurogenic pulmonary dysfunction after SCI/D relies on extensive preventive measures, including positioning and postural changes, breathing techniques, coughing (assisted for patients with tetraplegia), postural drainage, chest compression and percussion, and suctioning to avoid atelectasis, aspiration, and pneumonia. Ensure that patients receive influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations, and encourage smoking cessation. Obtain a chest x-ray if the patient demonstrates a decrease in respiratory function, deteriorating vital signs, reduced vital capacity, an increase in subjective dyspnea, or a change in sputum quantity. Treat respiratory infections early and aggressively,7-10 and strongly consider inpatient management because of the high risk of respiratory failure.

Pneumococcus is the most common cause of respiratory infections, although up to 21% of cases of community-acquired pneumonia in patients with SCI/D are caused by Pseudomonas.11-13 Avoid the use of antibiotics in patients who do not have signs or symptoms of a respiratory infection to minimize the development of resistant organisms. Target antibiotic therapy as per general population guidelines, as guidelines validated for use in the population with SCI/D do not currently exist.7,11

Be alert for UTIs—typical signs, symptoms don’t apply

The bladder receives innervation from S2 to S4 via the hypogastric, pudendal, and pelvic nerves. As such, the vast majority—70% to 84%—of patients with SCI/D report some degree of bladder dysfunction.14 Generally, SCI/D contributes to a combination of a failure to empty the bladder and a failure to store urine. The former is more frequent and the latter occurs more often in people with bladder outlet flaccidity, which usually occurs with low injury, such as that of the lumbar spine.14

The majority of people with SCI/D who are unable to empty their bladder require the use of some type of bladder catheter, either intermittent, indwelling (urethral or suprapubic), or condom. The choice of bladder management technique depends on gender, hand function, body habitus, caregiver assistance, and medical comorbidities. People with SCI/D are at greater risk for bladder and renal stones, UTI, vesicoureteral reflux, and bladder cancer.15,16 That said, the risk of bladder and renal stones declines somewhat after the first 6 months following an injury due to an immobility-induced loss of calcium.

One can't rely on the typical UTI symptoms of dysuria and increased urinary frequency in this patient population.

Patients with SCI/D are often found to have bacteruria and even pyuria, and although they are at high risk for recurrent UTIs, these can be difficult to diagnose because signs and symptoms may differ from those seen in people with neurologically intact bladders. Symptomatic UTIs may present with fever, hematuria, abdominal discomfort, and/or increased spasticity, among other symptoms. They may cause increased bouts of autonomic dysreflexia, malaise, or a change in functional status. One cannot rely on the typical symptoms of dysuria and increased urinary frequency in this patient population. Further, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) states that cloudy or foul-smelling urine in adults with catheters is not a symptom or sign mandating treatment.17

Because there is a lack of consensus as to what constitutes UTI symptoms in patients with SCI/D, PCPs need to be aware of changes from baseline in patients; these, combined with urine dip and culture results, should guide initiation of treatment.16

Prophylactic antibiotics have no role in the prevention of UTIs in patients with SCI/D. The minimal benefits associated with prophylaxis are outweighed by the risks of increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Research shows no significant benefit associated with the use of non-antibiotic prophylaxis, including the use of cranberry products and mannose, but further studies are needed in this patient population.18


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