Advanced Practice: Autonomic Dysreflexia in Spinal Cord Injury Patients

Epidemiology: more likely in complete than incomplete SCI.

Pathology: Individuals with a SCI at or above T6 can get an imbalanced reflex sympathetic surge; the CNS responds to this HTN by sending a strong inhibitory response, but because of spinal cord discontinuity, the response only travels as far as the injury.


  • Bladder distension or irritation (UTI, stone, kinked/blocked catheter, instrumentation/ cystoscopy, etc.) is responsible for 75-80% of cases.
  • The 2nd most common cause is bowel distension (often due to fecal impaction).

Clinical: > 20/10 rise in BP above baseline, usually associated with bradycardia.

  • HPI → HA, blurry vision, fatigue.
  • Exam → profuse sweating and flushing above level of lesion, piloerection below the lesion; nasal congestion is a common symptom
  • Can lead to ICH, seizures, MI, pulmonary edema, renal insufficiency, retinal hemorrhages because of sustained and severe peripheral HTN.


  • Source control
    • Catheterize the patient if no indwelling catheter.
    • If catheter in place, check the system for kinks and blockage.
    • Check for fecal impaction and disimpact as needed + bowel regimen.
    • Examine for pressure ulcers as a possible source.
    • If the above measures fail to illicit source, consider work up for PE and surgical abdominal etiologies like appendicitis and biliary disease based on your clinical assessment.
  • Consider antihypertensive agents like nitrates or nifedipine, especially in patients with SBP > 150 or signs of end-organ damage (think of as hypertensive emergency).
    • Many men with SCI are on erectile dysfunction meds → nitrates are contraindicated
  • Patient Education and Prevention → proper bowel (prevent impaction) and bladder (prevent distension) care is required

Bottom Line: Think twice about that elevated BP in T6+ SCI patients.


  • Krassioukov A, Warburton DE, Teasell R, Eng JJ Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Evidence Research Team. A systematic review of the management of autonomic dysreflexia after spinal cord injury. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009;90:682–695.
  • Milligan J, Lee J, McMillan C, et al. Autonomic dysreflexia: recognizing a common serious condition in patients with spinal cord injury. Can Fam Physician. 2012;58:831–835