After a spinal cord injury, your body no longer works the same way. Changes to which the body cannot adapt effectively can result in dangerous complications.
Autonomic dysreflexia is a potentially deadly complication of a spinal cord injury. Its origins may be mysterious because it results from a medical issue that occurs below your level of injury.
What causes autonomic dysreflexia?
According to the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center, autonomic nerve activity controls the body functions that just happen without you having to think consciously about them, such as your breathing and heartbeat, as well as your responses to danger. The sympathetic nervous system reacts to a perceived threat to your safety with a “fight or flight” response that increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Once the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to calm your body down with a “rest and digest” reaction.
An injury or medical condition below the level of your spinal cord injury may induce a response from the sympathetic nervous system. However, the disruption to your nervous system may prevent the parasympathetic response from reaching the affected area. Broken bones, pressure ulcers and bowel or bladder retention can all cause autonomic dysreflexia.
Why is autonomic dysreflexia dangerous?
It is not healthy for your body to remain in a persistent state of a “fight or flight” reaction. It could cause your blood pressure to rise to a dangerously high level. Left untreated, it could be life-threatening.
Because you do not experience symptoms below the level of your injury, you might not be aware of the problem that is causing autonomic dysreflexia. However, you may experience symptoms above the level of injury, such as chills, skin redness, sweating or a pounding headache.