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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Living With a Spinal Cord Injury - Lung Care

Breathing is usually something we do without thinking. But a spinal cord injury (SCI) may affect some of the muscles needed for breathing. This makes it hard to breathe, cough, and bring up mucus from the lungs, which leads to a greater risk of lung infections such as pneumonia.

How your breathing muscles are affected and what it means to your ability to breathe depends on which part of your spine was injured.

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  • People with injuries lower on the spinal cord (below T12) usually don't lose control of these muscles and have no trouble breathing.
  • People with SCIs high on the neck may need a ventilator. People with injuries between these levels have a partial loss of the breathing muscles but can usually still breathe on their own.

Preventing lung problems

There are things you can do to help prevent lung problems.

  • Know the symptoms of pneumonia. If you have the symptoms, contact your doctor immediately. Talk to him or her about getting vaccinated for pneumonia and influenza. For more information, see the topic Pneumonia.
  • Practice coughing. A forceful cough is important, because it will help you bring up mucus in the lungs, which can help prevent some lung complications. If your cough is weak and you have trouble bringing up mucus, you may need an assisted cough.
  • Remove excess mucus from the lungs. Coughing may not bring up all the mucus. In this case, you may need chest physiotherapy and/or postural drainage.
  • Practice breathing. Doing exercises, such as breathing out forcefully, can help strengthen the muscles you use for breathing.
  • Don't smoke.

And there are things you can do that aren't directly related to your lungs.

  • Sit up straight, and move around as much as possible. This helps prevent mucus buildup.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eating healthy foods will help keep you from gaining or losing weight. Being either overweight or underweight can lead to lung problems.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water. This helps prevent the mucus in your lungs from getting thick, and it makes the mucus easier to cough up. If you have concerns with bladder control, talk to your doctor about how much and when to drink fluids.

Choking: What to do

Choking is a danger if you have an SCI, because the usual cough mechanism may not be strong enough to bring up the item that is choking you. If choking occurs, your caregiver should:

  1. Hit you sharply 4 times between the shoulder blades with the palm of the hand.
  2. Use an assisted cough 4 times.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 above until you stop choking.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: March 17, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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