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Thermoregulation after a spinal cord injury

Thermoregulation after a spinal cord injury

Difficulties with regulating body heat are one of the possible consequences of a spinal cord injury, particularly during high summer temperatures. This is why it is important that you know how to anticipate and avoid problems related to extreme temperatures.

How does the body regulate heat?

The centre in our brain in charge of thermoregulation (maintenance of body temperature) reacts to the information that the body sends through nerves. Then, depending on the need, it triggers heating or the extraction of excess heat.  

For example, if you find yourself in a cool environment, your body will start to shake the muscles to warm up. On the other hand, if you are in a warm environment, the skin will sweat in order to cool the body. Both is controlled by our brain which regulates the body temperature and keeps it constant.

It is important to note that this thermoregulatory “mechanism” is essential for our proper functioning.

In case of a spinal cord injury at or above the sixth thoracic vertebrae, communication of the brain with a part of the body below the level of injury may be impaired or disabled, which will negatively affect the temperature regulation of your body.

This is why your body, depending on whether you are in a cool or warm environment, can be too cooled or overheated. In other words, the body cannot maintain a constant temperature.

This may cause lowered (cold ambient) or elevated (warm ambient) body temperature.

In case of very high temperatures, it is also possible that the skin gets dry below the injury level because there is no sweating that would otherwise moisturise it. As dry skin easily cracks, injuries are possible.

For people who cannot control body temperature in some part of their body, it is very important to avoid temperature extremes, be it low or high temperatures. Especially in the summer, tetraplegics and paraplegics (with an injury above Th6) should pay attention to this issue because they can otherwise have a heat stroke.

 

Avoiding high temperature and overheating

Fortunately, you can still prepare yourself in advance to avoid severe consequences of increased body temperature and/or overheating:

  • First of all, avoid prolonged and direct exposure to strong sunlight;
  • Increase fluid intake (water or juices) in the summer, but avoid drinking alcoholic beverages that cause body fluid loss;
  • Use sunscreen,
  • In the summer, wear clothes with light materials and light colours, a cap or a hat to protect your head and face.

High temperatures can also occur if you bathe in water which is too warm, wear warm clothes or cover yourself with too many blankets. In case you have high temperature, you should:

  • drink enough fluid;
  • take off warm clothes;
  • use cold compresses if necessary;
  • move to a cold room or a room with air-conditioning.

Be sure to monitor your body temperature. If you still cannot lower it to a normal level, be sure to contact a doctor.

Pay a special attention to possible burns, which can be caused by strong summer sunlight.

There is an increased risk for parts of the body below the level of injury where no sensation is preserved. Sunburns are also dangerous because they can cause autonomic dysreflexia. This is a very serious medical syndrome that can be caused by harmful stimuli below the injury level, leading to an uncontrolled growth of blood pressure.

In the end, perhaps the most important thing you can do is make yourself aware of the fact that your body cannot fully regulate its temperature. In this case, you can anticipate situations where potential difficulties may arise. Once you can predict them, it will certainly be easier for you to avoid them and enjoy your vacations.

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