Protect Your Heart

Reprinted from PN January 2017

Coronary artery disease is the most common form of heart disease, and knowing the signs and how to prevent it will keep you and your ticker going strong

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Anyone with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) is well aware of the many potential secondary conditions and complications that are necessary to monitor. However, there’s one problem that happens to be the leading cause of death in the United States — heart disease. 

The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD) and in preparation for American Heart Month in February, now’s a good time to start taking a closer look at how to prevent CAD.

Not An ‘Old Person’s’ Disease

The incidence of CAD among individuals with SCI/D isn’t unique to this population. However, decreased mobility can trigger an increased likelihood of exacerbating CAD. 

This problem isn’t an “old person’s” disease. In fact, CAD is a chronic process that can begin at a young age and slowly progress throughout an individual’s life span. It begins with a substance known as plaque (cholesterol, fatty compounds, calcium and fibrin) that forms inside the arteries that supply blood to the heart.

This build-up of plaque increases inflammation of the artery and lessens the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart. If the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle is reduced or blocked, angina or a heart attack can occur.

Angina is chest pain or discomfort that may feel like pressure or squeezing in your chest. The pain also can occur in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back. Angina pain may even feel like indigestion.

A heart attack occurs if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle is cut off. If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, the section of heart muscle begins to die. Without quick treatment, a heart attack can lead to serious health problems or death.

It Can Start Early

Heart issues such as CAD can start developing during the initial phase of a SCI.

Initially following a SCI, a transient state of loss of all neurological activity (motor, sensory, reflex and autonomic function) takes place, also known as spinal shock. During this phase, individuals experience lower than normal blood pressure, lower than normal heart rate in tetraplegics and higher than normal heart rate in paraplegics. 

This early transient state poses great risk for the development of cardiovascular complications such as blood clots and abnormal heart rhythms. Close monitoring by trained clinicians located within an SCI/D center is vital to ensure a strong outcome during this acute phase and into the subacute phase of rehabilitation. 


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