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.


Focus on bowel function; it correlates with quality of life

Bowel dysfunction is nearly universal in patients with SCI/D. The enteric nervous system is modulated via the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and somatic systems, and intrinsic control occurs via the myenteric and submucosal plexi. The loss of volitional control of defecation can result in prolonged transit time, reduced colonic motility, fecal incontinence, and difficulty with evacuation.

Because bowel care and function are highly correlated with quality of life,19 recommend bowel emptying every day or every other day, as well as adequate fiber in the diet, intake of fluids, stool softeners, bulk forming agents, contact irritants (eg, bisacodyl), and prokinetic agents to achieve optimal bowel care.

Prevent and treat pressure ulcers whenever possible

Fertility is often unaffected in women with spinal cord injury/disease, so routine discussions about contraception in those who are sexually active are imperative.

Accompanying the paralysis associated with SCI/D is often some degree of sensory loss of pain, light touch, temperature, and/or proprioception. The combination of insensate skin, immobility, and sarcopenia with resultant body composition changes places individuals with SCI/D at high risk for skin breakdown.21,22 Blood flow and oxygen tension at the skin surface are also decreased in patients with SCI/D compared to those without, further contributing to the problem.21,23 Increased latency from the time of injury correlates with increased likelihood of pressure ulcer development.21,22,24

External risk factors for pressure ulcers include prolonged pressure exposure, or intense pressure over a short period, shear forces, poor nutrition, smoking, moisture, and immobility. The incidence of pressure ulcers in patients with SCI/D is 25% to 66%, compared with 0.38% in the general population.21,22 Research indicates that US hospitals spend $11 billion annually on the treatment of the condition.22

To minimize pressure ulcers in this population, perform a risk assessment, using, for example, the Spinal Cord Injury Pressure Ulcer Scale-Acute (SCIPUS-A) available at In addition, recommend that patients use pressure redistribution surfaces for beds and wheelchairs, turn while in bed, perform frequent (approximately every 15-30 minutes) pressure reliefs, exercise or move regularly, and that they or a caregiver inspect the skin daily. If pressure ulcers do occur, start treatment immediately and document the stage of the ulcer.

Ensure that screening efforts go beyond what’s standard

Preventive care for patients with SCI/D is similar in many ways to that recommended for the general population. Screening for colorectal cancer,31 cervical cancer, and breast cancer32 should follow the same evidence-based intervals and age ranges suggested by groups such as the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). The only difference is to give special consideration to patients’ physical limitations and the set-up of exam rooms when scheduling and conducting procedures, such as Pap smears, colonoscopies, and mammograms.33,34

Bladder cancer. Because of the high risk for bladder cancer (ie, squamous cell carcinoma, as opposed to the more common transitional cell carcinoma) in this population, experts recommend annual cystoscopy for bladder cancer surveillance in patients who have had indwelling catheters for more than 5 to 10 years.35

Osteoporosis. Screening for osteoporosis is another preventive health area in which recommendations differ from those addressing the general population. Paralysis contributes to a decrease in mechanical stress on bone and to accelerated bone loss, and, thus, to osteoporosis.36

In patients with SCI/D, osteoporosis affects primarily weight-bearing areas below the injured lesion, such as the distal femur and proximal tibia. Fractures in patients with SCI/D may occur during minor trauma (eg, during transfers from wheelchair to bed). Although screening and treatment guidelines for osteoporosis in patients with SCI/D are not established, most experts recommend early screening and early and aggressive treatment.36

Male fertility is usually profoundly affected by spinal cord injury/disease; patients and their partners who are interested in having children will require specialized interventions.

Depression reportedly occurs more frequently in individuals with SCI/D than in the general population,37,38 affecting adjustment, quality of life, and social, behavioral, and physical functioning. In light of this, it’s advisable to use screening tools, such as The Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ)-9, routinely.39

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