Heart disease is not something you would normally associate with a spinal cord injury. However, the facts show that spinal cord injury patients have a 30% greater chance of developing heart disease than the average able bodied person. The risk increases with the length of time since sustaining the injury. Why does this happen? There are a number of factors that have to be taken into consideration.
Spinal cord injury patients can not help but to lead a more sedentary physical lifestyle. The heart is a muscle and it needs to be taken care of as well. When we do not exercise and get our heart rates up to a cardiovascular level it does not strengthen the muscle. If you suffer from autonomic dysreflexia your risk of heart disease is even higher! Autonomic functions are things we can’t control such as blood pressure, digestion, heart rate, and body temperature. Chances are if you suffer from a spinal cord injury one of those areas has been affected. I don’t know of a single patient who said their doctor wasn’t interested in their heart function after an injury, but it seems this should be a major concern for all of us!
SCI patients also had lower good cholesterol and higher bad cholesterol as well despite living a healthy lifestyle. This alone places you in a higher category of risk for heart disease.
It was also found that SCI patients who suffered from autonomic dysreflexia had higher levels of abnormal blood sugars leaving them in a pre-diabetic state. Diabetes is another risk factor for heart disease.
Those numbers do not include any heart problems that were in existence before the injury occurred. It would appear by the numbers that we are all destined to suffer from some level of heart disease at one point of another, but there are steps you can take to decrease your risk. Use of a standing frame has been show to have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. Recent studies have shown FES stimulation for exercise of the legs has been shown to elevate the hearts response to cardiovascular fitness levels. This is definitely something to ask your doctor about at your next appointment. The studies have shown that a workout of only the upper body did not produce the same results unfortunately.
Heart health should be important to all of us since it’s vital to our survival. While we automatically have many factors working against us it’s important to do whatever we can to remain healthy for as long as possible.