Mobility is a challenge for spinal cord injured patients. Infection is another. Adam Thrasher, assistant professor of health and human performance (HHP), says infection is the leading cause of death for people living with spinal cord injuries for two years or more. He and HHP colleague Richard Simpson are investigating why the immune system is blunted after a spinal cord injury.
"People who have sustained such an injury have much higher infection rates than the general population, particularly in the urinary tract, lungs and gastro-intestinal tract," Thrasher said. "They are very susceptible to pneumonia and furthermore, because their immune system is compromised, they have a hard time fighting these infections."
There are many theories as to why exercise helps an able-bodied person's immune system. The body may respond to exercise by releasing more antibodies and white blood cells, allowing them to find and fight illnesses before they become problematic, or the reduction in stress may assist the body in staving off illness. Though many theories exist for the able-bodied population, there are few for those with spinal cord injuries.
"It's a bit of a mystery because the injury is to the central nervous system," Thrasher said. "This is the part of the body that controls different muscles and organs. We know that there is paralysis; we know that there are limits to their mobility. But the immune system is one of the secondary complications. We don't know exactly why it happens. The immune system simply doesn't perform as well when the central nervous system is damaged."