Autonomic dysreflexia in acute spinal cord injury: an under-recognized clinical entity

J Neurotrauma. 2003 Aug;20(8):707-16. doi: 10.1089/089771503767869944.


While autonomic dysreflexia (AD) is well recognized in the chronic stage of spinal cord injury (SCI) this potentially life-threatening complication has been only rarely documented in the acute phase (1 month) after SCI. Based on our clinical experience we hypothesized that AD is under-recognized in the acute phase of SCI. This study was undertaken to determine the incidence and clinical associations of early AD in our center. We reviewed the charts of patients with acute traumatic SCI admitted to the Toronto Western Hospital Spinal Program between 1998 and 2000. Among 58 patients with acute traumatic SCI (15F, 43M; ages 17-89 years, mean of 55.4), all three individuals who developed evidence of early AD had complete cervical tetraplegia (1F, 2M; ages 31-42 years, mean of 38.3). The incidence of early AD was 5.2% (3 of 58), whereas the adjusted incidence for the population at risk (SCI at T6 or above) was 5.7% (3 of 53). A significant number of patients in this series (87.9%, or 51 of 58) had a cervical SCI. While the mean resting systolic arterial blood pressure among these three individuals was 105.7+/-3 mm Hg, the mean systolic blood pressure at the time of early AD was 173.3+/-14.8 mm Hg (increase in systolic blood pressure over baseline ranged from 35.5% to 95%). The earliest episode of AD occurred on the 4(th) post-injury day. The trigger mechanisms for AD were somatic pain, fecal impaction, and abdominal distention. Although numerous reports emphasize AD as a potential complication of chronic SCI, our study demonstrates that AD occurs in 5.7% of patients with acute SCI above T6. Patients with severe cervical SCI are particularly susceptible to the early onset of AD. Clinicians need to be aware and highly vigilant of the potential development of AD in the acute phase of SCI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Autonomic Dysreflexia / epidemiology*
  • Autonomic Dysreflexia / etiology*
  • Autonomic Dysreflexia / physiopathology
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Cervical Vertebrae
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypertension / etiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Quadriplegia / etiology
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / complications*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology
  • Thoracic Vertebrae