Skip to main navigation Skip to main content Skip to footer For Medicare For Providers For Brokers For Employers Español For Individuals & Families: For Individuals & Families Medical Dental Other Supplemental Explore coverage through work How to Buy Health Insurance Types of Dental Insurance Open Enrollment vs. Special Enrollment See all topics Shop for Medicare plans Member Guide Find a Doctor Log in to myCigna
Home Knowledge Center Wellness Library Spinal Cord Injury: Autonomic Dysreflexia

Spinal Cord Injury: Autonomic Dysreflexia

Overview

Autonomic dysreflexia is a syndrome in which the blood pressure of a person with a spinal cord injury (SCI) suddenly goes very high. Symptoms include:

  • A pounding headache.
  • A flushed face and red blotches on the skin above the level of spinal injury.
  • Sweating above the level of spinal injury.
  • A stuffy nose.
  • Nausea.
  • A slow or very fast heart rate.
  • Goose bumps below the level of spinal injury.
  • Cold, clammy skin below the level of spinal injury.

What causes it?

Autonomic dysreflexia occurs when your body reacts to pain or pressure below your spinal cord injury. This can be a pain or an irritant (such as tight clothing or something pinching your skin). Or it can be a normal function that your body may not notice (such as having a full bladder). These situations trigger an automatic reaction that causes your blood pressure to go up. Other things that may cause this reaction include:

  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs).
  • An overfull bowel or constipation.
  • Gastrointestinal problems such as gallstones, stomach ulcers, or gastritis.
  • Pressure injuries.
  • Ingrown nails or other skin problems.
  • Sexual activity.
  • Broken bones or other injuries.
  • Tight clothing or devices.
  • Extreme temperatures or quick temperature changes.

How can you prevent it?

There are ways you may be able to prevent autonomic dysreflexia. This means doing things to avoid the things that cause it.

  • To avoid an overfull bladder or urinary tract infections (UTIs), follow your bladder management program.
  • To avoid an overfull bowel or constipation or gastrointestinal problems such as gallstones, stomach ulcers, or gastritis, follow your bowel management program. Eat fiber and consume fluids as your doctor suggests.
  • To avoid pressure injuries, ingrown nails, or other skin problems, check your skin daily. Make sure that all clothing or devices fit right.
  • Be aware that having sex can cause the condition. Discuss this with your doctor.
  • Be aware of what else can cause the condition. This includes broken bones or other injuries, tight clothing or devices, and extreme temperatures or quick changes in temperature. Discuss this with your doctor. Make sure that all clothing and devices fit right.

How can you care for yourself?

There are ways you may be able to treat autonomic dysreflexia at home.

  • Sit up straight, or raise your head so you are looking straight ahead. If you can lower your legs, do so. You need to be sitting upright until your blood pressure is back to normal.
  • Loosen or take off any tight clothing or accessories. This includes braces, catheter tape, socks or stockings, shoes, and bandages.
  • Empty your bladder by draining your Foley catheter or using your catheter.
  • Use digital stimulation to empty your bowel.
  • Check your skin for red spots that mean you might have a pressure injury.
  • If you can, check your blood pressure every 5 minutes to see if it improves.
  • Call your doctor, even if symptoms go away and your blood pressure is decreasing.
  • If the symptoms return, repeat the above steps and go to the emergency room or call emergency services.

Be sure to talk to your health care team ahead of time about what to do when you have symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia. Call your doctor immediately or get emergency medical care if symptoms of autonomic dysreflexia don't get better right away. If you or a caregiver can't treat it promptly and correctly, it may lead to seizures, stroke, and even death.

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated, disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. Learn how we develop our content.

© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.

Related Links

Living With a Spinal Cord Injury

<cipublic-spinner variant="large"><span>Loading…</span></cipublic-spinner>

Page Footer

I want to...

Get an ID card File a claim View my claims and EOBs Check coverage under my plan See prescription drug list Find an in-network doctor, dentist, or facility Find a form Find 1095-B tax form information View the Cigna Glossary Contact Cigna

Audiences

Individuals and Families Medicare Employers Brokers Providers

Secure Member Sites

myCigna member portal Health Care Provider portal Cigna for Employers Client Resource Portal Cigna for Brokers

Cigna Company Information

About Cigna Company Profile Careers Newsroom Investors Suppliers Third Party Administrators International Evernorth

 Cigna. All rights reserved.

Privacy Legal Product Disclosures Cigna Company Names Customer Rights Accessibility Non-Discrimination Notice [PDF] Language Assistance [PDF] Report Fraud Sitemap

Disclaimer

Individual and family medical and dental insurance plans are insured by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (CHLIC), Cigna HealthCare of Arizona, Inc., Cigna HealthCare of Illinois, Inc., and Cigna HealthCare of North Carolina, Inc. Group health insurance and health benefit plans are insured or administered by CHLIC, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company (CGLIC), or their affiliates (see a listing of the legal entities  that insure or administer group HMO, dental HMO, and other products or services in your state). Accidental Injury, Critical Illness, and Hospital Care plans or insurance policies are distributed exclusively by or through operating subsidiaries of Cigna Corporation, are administered by Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company, and are insured by either (i) Cigna Health and Life Insurance Company (Bloomfield, CT); (ii) Life Insurance Company of North America (“LINA”) (Philadelphia, PA); or (iii) New York Life Group Insurance Company of NY (“NYLGICNY”) (New York, NY), formerly known as Cigna Life Insurance Company of New York. The Cigna name, logo, and other Cigna marks are owned by Cigna Intellectual Property, Inc. LINA and NYLGICNY are not affiliates of Cigna.

All insurance policies and group benefit plans contain exclusions and limitations. For availability, costs and complete details of coverage, contact a licensed agent or Cigna sales representative. This website is not intended for residents of New Mexico.

Selecting these links will take you away from Cigna.com to another website, which may be a non-Cigna website. Cigna may not control the content or links of non-Cigna websites. Details