AUSTIN (KXAN) — During the pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about high-risk groups for developing more severe illness from COVID-19.
One group that may not immediately come to mind as being more at-risk, however, is people with spinal cord injuries. Researchers say those injuries complicate the body’s response to coronavirus.
“We mostly see people with paralysis, we think, ‘Oh, those are people that don’t walk,’ but it’s so much more than that,” said Linda Schultz, Ph.D., CRRN.
Linda Schultz is with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. She says spinal cord injuries actually cause immunosuppression in paralyzed patients.
“What would normally happen is that your body would spot this through the autonomic nervous system,” Schultz said of a COVID-19 infection. “It’ll detect an invader, and it’ll shoot a message really quickly to the brain to say, ‘There’s an invader here. Do something,’ And the brain will say, ‘Okay, we’re going to release an immune response.’“
But this differs in patients with spinal cord injuries, or SIC, she said.
“If that message can’t get to the brain quickly enough, or doesn’t get to the brain at all, that invader has the opportunity to multiply within the body. And so, that’s why people who have paralysis, spinal cord injury, are at particular risk to infection.”
Through her research, Schultz personally believes people in wheelchairs could also be more at risk of catching the virus as many are continually touching their chairs’ handrims and tires and sit lower than everyone else.
“Viruses are around, they’re flying around in the air. And we’ve all seen the examples on the internet about, you know, somebody sneezes in this aisle in the grocery store, and it travels way over there,” she explained. “But gravity does play an effect, too. So those viruses are eventually going to come down. So, if you’re in a group of people, and you’re lower than everybody else, you might be more susceptible.”
Schultz says paralysis can also affect breathing ability and even make coughing less effective when coronavirus patients need to cough to break up secretions in the lungs.
Schultz feels because of the added risks, early access to vaccines and antibody infusion therapy are important for patients with spinal cord injuries.