New Paper: Living with Spinal Cord Injury: Watching for Secondary Conditions

What is this research about?  We know people living with spinal cord injury experience many problems that may not be directly caused by their injury, but are still related to it.  These problems may start any time after the injury.  They include things like chronic pain and fatigue.  These problems are called “secondary” or “secondary conditions.”  In fact, sometimes “secondary” problems can be even more troublesome and difficult to manage than the original condition itself.  However, they often don’t get as much attention from health care providers. Because some of these conditions may be prevented or treated, it is important to know when and how frequently they occur. 

What did the researchers do? We reviewed a wide range of published studies in order to find the proportion of those with spinal cord injury who have various secondary conditions.  We were also interested in when conditions occur.  For example, at what age did they begin?  How long after the spinal cord injury did they begin? The review was broad.  It included all types of studies from 1986 to 2011 related to potential secondary conditions in spinal cord injury.  We took detailed information from nearly 100 articles. 

What did the researchers find?  Several conditions happen more often in those with spinal cord injury than in the general population.  These include problems with pain, bowel or bladder regulation, muscle spasms, fatigue, the esophagus (food tube) and bone thinning.  These conditions happen more often in older people.  They also occurred more often in those who have lived with spinal cord injury for a long time.  Unfortunately, we do not have a good understanding of their long-term course because research that tracks people over time is very rare.

How can you use this research?  People with spinal cord injury may experience premature aging. They may develop secondary conditions earlier than those in the general population.  It is important that people with spinal cord injury and their healthcare provide watch for these conditions.  Being alert to the conditions help to prevent serious problems or lessening their negative impact. Please see our Aging Well Factsheets to learn more about dealing with secondary problems. 

What you need to know:

  • Secondary conditions are an important part of the health picture for people aging with spinal cord injury.
  • Problems with pain, bowel or bladder regulation, muscle spasms, fatigue, the esophagus (food tube) and bone thinning are common.
  • Getting appropriate treatment for these problems is important and can start with a conversation with your doctor.
  • Early treatment may prevent or lessen the impact of these conditions. 

Original study: Jensen, M., Truitt, A., Schomer, K., Yorkston, K., Baylor, C., & Molton, I. R. (2013). Frequency and age effects of secondary health conditions in individuals with spinal cord injury:  A scoping review. Spinal Cord, 51, 882-892.

About the researcher(s): Mark Jensen is a Professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington, and has a history of federally funding research.