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Top Spinal Cord Inj Rehabil. 2012 Fall;18(4):283-90. doi: 10.1310/sci1804-283.

Specialized respiratory management for acute cervical spinal cord injury:: a retrospective analysis.

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Department of Respiratory Care Services.



In individuals with cervical spinal cord injury (SCI), respiratory complications arise within hours to days of injury. Paralysis of the respiratory muscles predisposes the patient toward respiratory failure. Respiratory complications after cervical SCI include hypoventilation, hypercapnea, reduction in surfactant production, mucus plugging, atelectasis, and pneumonia. Ultimately, the patient must use increased work to breathe, which results in respiratory fatigue and may eventually require intubation for mechanical ventilation. Without specialized respiratory management for individuals with tetraplegia, recurrent pneumonias, bronchoscopies, and difficulty in maintaining a stable respiratory status will persist.


This retrospective analysis examined the effectiveness of specialized respiratory management utilized in a regional SCI center.


Individuals with C1-C4 SCI (N = 24) were the focus of this study as these neurological levels present with the most complicated respiratory status.


All of the study patients' respiratory status improved with the specialized respiratory management administered in the SCI specialty unit. For a majority of these patients, respiratory improvements were noted within 1 week of admission to our SCI unit.


Utilization of high tidal volume ventilation, high frequency percussive ventilation, and mechanical insufflation- exsufflation have demonstrated efficacy in stabilizing the respiratory status of these individuals. Optimizing respiratory status enables the patients to participate in rehabilitation therapies, allows for the opportunity to vocalize, and results in fewer days on mechanical ventilation for patients who are weanable.


atelectasis; mechanical ventilation; pneumonia; respiratory complications; respiratory therapy; spinal cord injury; tetraplegia

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