Orthostatic hypotension and autonomic pathways after spinal cord injury

J Neurotrauma. 2006 Dec;23(12):1713-25. doi: 10.1089/neu.2006.23.1713.


Individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) are prone to orthostatic hypotension (OH). We aimed to develop a simple bedside test to evaluate autonomic control following chronic SCI, and to identify those most at risk of OH and cardiovascular dysfunction. We studied 14 subjects with cervical SCI, 11 with thoracic SCI, and 17 able-bodied controls. We continuously recorded heart rate (HR; ECG) and beat-to-beat systolic (SAP), diastolic (DAP) and mean (MAP) arterial pressures (Finometer) while supine, and following the passive assumption of an upright seated position. Stroke volume (SV), cardiac output (CO), and total peripheral resistance (TPR) were calculated. Plasma catecholamines were determined. Motor and sensory loss was assessed using the American Spinal Injury Association (ASIA) impairment scale. Autonomic pathways were assessed from sympathetic skin responses (SSR). Cervical SCI subjects had lower supine HR, SAP, and noradrenaline levels than thoracic SCI and controls (p < 0.05), and lower DAP and MAP than controls (p < 0.05). When upright, HR increased in all groups (p < 0.05); SAP, DAP, and MAP increased (p < 0.01) in thoracic SCI and controls, but not in cervical SCI. Cervical SCI had larger postural falls in SV (p < 0.05) and CO, with smaller increases in TPR than the other two groups. Upright catecholamine levels were lower in cervical SCI (p < 0.05) than thoracic SCI and controls. Completeness of SCI assessed by ASIA scale did not necessarily correlate with autonomic completeness assessed by SSR. Cardiovascular control during orthostasis was impaired and OH was common in cervical SCI, but not thoracic SCI. SSR may identify those at greatest risk of orthostatic hypotension and impaired cardiovascular control. We advocate that assessments of autonomic function be included in the neurological evaluation of SCI, in addition to the ASIA assessment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Autonomic Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Cardiac Output / physiology
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cervical Vertebrae
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypotension, Orthostatic / etiology
  • Hypotension, Orthostatic / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Point-of-Care Systems
  • Posture / physiology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / complications
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / physiopathology*
  • Thoracic Vertebrae