Not for sissies

Spinal cord injury can exacerbate the inevitable ageing process – but there are a few ways to reduce the impact. ZELMARIE GOOSEN reports.

As we age, many of our physical systems are affected: our skin and hair start to thin, we lose height because of changes in posture and the compression of joints, spinal bones and discs, and our hearing and eyesight weaken.

SCI exacerbates the decline in particular in the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal (GI) and pulmonary systems.

Most of the research done on the correlation between SCI and ageing suggests that SCI not only represents a model or partial model for premature ageing but that it occurs in certain body systems because of additional stresses on physical systems and their ability to repair themselves. According to, a number of long-term follow-up studies and many authors have documented the tendency for individuals with SCI to age faster than the able-bodied population does.

Musculoskeletal system

Premature ageing may occur in the femoral and hip regions in persons with SCI, as noted in Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Evidence (the SCIRE project). It may be that declines in bone mass occur rapidly following injury, and reach a new steady state within three to eight years post injury, depending on the bone parameter and skeletal site.

What you can do

See a specialist for joint assessment, modification of equipment and equipment assessment and the implementation of protective manoeuvres to preserve joints.

Cardiovascular system

SCIRE reports that greater levels of atherosclerotic burden, higher levels of C-reactive protein levels and abnormal lipid profiles compared to the able-bodied population increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in persons with SCI.

What you can do

Increase your activity level, eat a balanced diet and have a cardiovascular assessment done.

GI system

According to, weight gain, increased constipation, increased incontinence and increased rectal bleeding and haemorrhoids are possibilities. Someone with SCI may also be more at risk than an able-bodied person for gallstones.

What you can do

Manage a routine bowel programme that fits your lifestyle, adjust medication and diet if necessary, have routine colorectal screenings, go on a weight-loss regimen if needed and consider the need for increased attendant care.

Pulmonary system further reports that the pulmonary system experiences decreased compliance or elasticity of the lung tissues, interfering with the lungs’ ability to expand. In addition, the chest wall loses its flexibility and muscle strength, leading to a restriction of pulmonary function. Vital capacity, maximum voluntary ventilation, expiratory flow rate and forced expiratory ventilation all decline with ageing.

What you can do

Increase your activity level, get immunised against flu and pneumonia, go for respiratory assessment, practise deep breathing and (if you’re a smoker) quit smoking.

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