The Respiratory System
Respiratory System Sections
The Respiratory System Following a Spinal Cord Injury
The respiratory system of a person suffering a spinal
cord injury may be impaired due to paralysis of the chest muscles, abdominal muscles or diaphragm. The degree of impairment will vary depending on the level
of spinal cord injury.
of the Respiratory System
The tube which carries the air from the mouth is
called the Trachea or Windpipe, this later divides into two at which
point it becomes the Bronchi and divides the air equally to each
lung. Once the air enters the lungs it passes through a fine spongy
structure which contains an extensive network of blood vessels,
these vessels bring carbon dioxide into the lungs for removal, and
take oxygen from the lungs to the body.
The process of breathing is controlled subconsciously,
and involves muscles in the ribcage, between the ribs called intracostal
muscles, and another muscle called the diaphragm. These muscles
work together, and to breath in, the intracostal muscles lift the
ribs up and forward whilst the diaphragm moves downwards, thus expanding
the lungs and resulting in an inward breath. To breath out, the
intercostal muscles and the diaphragm are relaxed, resulting in
an outward breath.
The lining of the Bronchi is very sensitive and is
covered in a layer of mucus which helps protect the delicate structure
of the lungs and moisten the air, it also helps to filter out dust
and bacteria from reaching the lungs. If bacteria does reach the
lungs, it can form into a chest infection, or if dust is inhaled,
it can cause a reaction of coughing. Coughing is induced by a rapid
contraction of the abdominal muscles to expel air at force from
the lungs, and for the spinally injured, only a low level spinal
cord injury will leave the cough reflex in tact.
Effects of a Spinal Cord Injury
The effects on the respiratory system from a spinal
cord injury will vary from person to person, however, several generalisations
can be made with regards to the level of injury and how it affects
the breathing process.
With a spinal cord injury of C4 and higher, all the
muscles which control breathing will be paralysed. these are the
intracostal muscles, the diaphragm and the abdominal muscles. In
order to breath, the person will need a machine called a ventilator
to breath for them, this machine forces air in and out of the lungs
to re-oxygenate the blood. In order to cough, the person will need
help by way of a carer performing an assisted cough procedure.
Injuries between C4 and T6 will leave the person
able to breath on their own, however, because the intracostal muscles
may be weakened or paralysed depending on the level of injury, breathing
may be mainly done in patients with a cervical injury solely by
the diaphragm. Again, coughing may also be a problem, quadriplegics
may need help in coughing, whilst paraplegics may have enough abdominal
movement to innervate sufficient pressure to clear their airways
on their own.
Injuries between T6 and T12 do not normally affect
breathing, however the ability to cough will be impaired. It is
only with injuries below T12 that normal breathing and cough reflexes
The inability to cough is of major importance to
a person with a spinal cord injury, as failure to remove dust, mucus
or saliva from the lungs can lead to infection. The most common
infections are common colds, bronchitis (inflammation of the bronchus),
bronchiolitis (inflammation of the bronchioles) and pneumonia. If
an infection does occur in the lungs it may be necessary to take
a course of antibiotics to help clear the chest.
With all infections of the chest, it may be necessary
to clear the lungs with an assisted cough. This procedure is done
by applying firm, even pressure just below the ribcage by a carer,
while the person breathes out or tries to cough. Careful control
of the pressure used by the carer is critical, to avoid causing
injury and to help give the most effective 'cough'.
A way to help keep the fine structures of the lungs
clear is to do deep breathing exercises, and one of the best deep
breathing exercises is to do physical exercise.
Smoking Following a Spinal Cord Injury
It goes without saying that those people
who continue to smoke following a spinal cord injury, are at an
even higher risk of developing a chest infection, and pneumonia,
than a non smoker.
In short, if you are a paraplegic or quadriplegic, GIVE UP SMOKING !
Support : Types
of Paralysis : Vertebral Column : Spinal
Cord : Myotomes & Dermatomes
Autonomic Dysreflexia : Spasticity
& Spasms : Temperature Regulation
: Respiratory System :
Pressure Sores : Spinal
Cord Injury Research