Respiratory Health and SCI Infocomic

After spinal cord injury, the signals sent from your brain can no longer pass beyond the damage to the spinal cord, making it hard to control the muscles you would normally use for inhaling and exhaling. This comic includes information on respiratory health and SCI and ways to help manage the symptoms.

SCI can lead to respiratory muscle weakness and paralysis, making it hard to breathe. This comic explains that people with SCI who have respiratory issues may develop other health problems, which may include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

This comic also explains the ways to actively help your lungs after SCI to make sure they are as healthy as possible, such as:

  • Not smoking or vaping
  • Avoiding the buildup of mucus in the lungs
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Getting a flu shot every year

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Today is Michelle’s birthday.

Surrounded by friends and family, she is about to blow out the candles on her cake but cannot get enough air.

She turns to her friend for help and asks: You know what? Blow out these candles with me. Together, Michelle and her friend blow out the candles.

Seeing her friend’s curiosity, Michelle says: It looks like you’re wondering why that was hard for me? Michelle explains that a spinal cord injury can lead to respiratory muscle weakness and paralysis. This can make it hard to breathe.

Michelle explains that respiratory muscle weakness and paralysis means the muscles that allow you to inhale oxygen into your lungs and exhale carbon dioxide no longer work or are too weak to work well, causing shortness of breath. A diagram follows demonstrating inhalation and exhalation. Oxygen enters the lungs during inhalation and carbon dioxide exits during exhalation. During inhalation, the space inside the chest increases and during exhalation, the space inside the chest decreases.

Michelle’s friend asks: Does that impact your health?

Michelle tells her friend that people with SCI who have respiratory problems may develop other health problems. These may include:

Bronchitis, which is an infection in the tubes that lead to the lungs.

For example, Michelle is coughing near a duck pond, startling a duck.

Pneumonia, which is an infection of the air sacs in the lungs.

For example, Michelle is shivering. Her concerned parents are standing behind her and ask: Are you okay, dear?

Obstructive sleep apnea, which is a blockage of air flow in the back of the throat during sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is associated with feeling sleepy and tired, depression, heart problems, and other issues.

For example, Michelle is in bed fast asleep and snoring. Her snores are so loud that she wakes her cat resting at the foot of her bed.

Michelle then explains to her friend that during her rehab stay, she learned ways to actively help her lungs be as healthy as possible, including:

Not smoking or vaping. Avoid secondhand smoke. Cigarette smoke or inhaling smoke or vapors from other sources can harm your health in many ways.

For example, a man is smoking outside as Michelle passes by. Michelle tells herself: Smoking is gross.

Avoiding the buildup of mucus in the lungs. A cough assist machine can help keep your lungs clear if your respiratory muscles are too weak to cough. An attendant or family member can also be taught to help you cough.

For example, a nurse is helping Michelle use a cough assist machine. Michelle is sitting up straight in her chair as the nurse applies the mouthpiece over her mouth and says: Great job, Michelle!

Stay hydrated!

Drink plenty of water, especially if you have an infection, unless your healthcare provider has told you something different. Be active and keep a healthy weight. Being overweight may lead to lung problems.

For example, Michelle is taking a break from playing basketball with her friends to drink water.

Get a flu shot every year. There are also two different types of pneumonia shots that you should discuss with your health care provider. Stay away from people who may have the flu or a cold.

For example, Michelle is receiving a flu shot from her doctor.

Michelle says that even when she tries her best to prevent repository problems, they can still happen. That’s why she always contacts her healthcare provider if she has signs of a respiratory infection or sleep apnea. She also sees her provider once a year for a check-up.

For example, Michelle and her parents are waving goodbye to Michelle’s physician, who says: See you next year!

With her family behind her, Michelle then looks at her friend and says: Now, let’s have some cake!

Source: The Content of this infocomic has been adapted from the factsheet Respiratory Health and Spinal Cord Injury, which was developed by Eric Garshick, MD, MOH, Phil Klebine, MA, Daniel J. Gottlieb, MD, MPH, and Anthony Chiodo, MD, in collaboration with the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center. It was illustrated by Grant Corley. Our health information content is based on research evidence whenever available and represents the consensus of expert opinion of the SCI Model System directors. Disclaimer: This information is not meant to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should consult your health care provider about specific medical concerns or treatment. The contents of this infocomic were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR grant number 90DP0082). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this infocomic do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Neither SCI Model Systems, MSKTC, or NIDILRR has examined, reviewed, or tested any product or device cited in the infocomic. None of the parties involved make endorsement, representation, or warranty as to any product or device contained in this infocomic. Copyright 2022 Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (MSKTC). May be reproduced and distributed freely with appropriate attribution. Prior permission must be obtained for inclusion in fee-based materials.

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Related Resources for Respiratory Health and SCI

To learn more, check out our resources page about respiratory health and SCI.

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