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Pulmonary Hygiene after Spinal Cord Injury

What is pulmonary hygiene?

Pulmonary hygiene is also called respiratory care. Pulmonary hygiene is a group of exercises and treatments to help you breathe better and to keep your lungs healthy. Although many people need pulmonary hygiene, it is very important for people with spinal cord injuries (SCI). Caregivers will work very closely with you to help your lungs work as well as possible and to prevent problems. The amount of trouble you have breathing depends on where your spinal cord is injured. Pulmonary hygiene consists of breathing exercises and treatments, postural drainage, chest physiotherapy (fiz-ee-oh-THER-ah-pee), quad assist coughing, and suctioning.

What if I cannot breathe well enough on my own?

You may need help breathing right after your SCI. Normally, your diaphragm is your main breathing muscle. After an SCI, your neck muscles may become your main breathing muscles. These muscles by themselves cannot bring in enough air to live. Because of this, you may need help to breathe. You may need ventilation (ven-ti-LAY-shun) assistance, such as a phrenic (FREN-ik) pacer or a mechanical ventilator (VEN-ti-lay-ter).

What is a pulmonary embolism?

A pulmonary embolism (EM-boh-lizm) happens when a thrombus (blood clot) blocks a pulmonary (lung) artery. Pulmonary embolisms are also called PE's. PE's are common problems after an SCI, and can be life-threatening. Caregivers may give you medicine to slow your blood from clotting. You may have a bed that rotates to keep your blood moving well through your body. The symptoms of a PE include very bad and sudden chest pain and difficulty breathing. Blood in your sputum (spit) is another sign. Tell your caregivers if you feel or see any of these problems.

What can I do to prevent breathing problems?

There are many things you can do to help prevent respiratory problems. Staying active, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking will help your breathing. Drinking enough liquids and using a humidifier helps your respiratory secretions stay thin so you can breathe easier.

Where can I go for support?

  • Having a spinal cord injury is life changing for you and your family. Accepting that you have a spinal cord injury is hard. You and those close to you may feel angry, sad, or frightened. These feelings are normal. Talk to your caregivers, family, or friends about your feelings. Let them help you. Encourage those close to you to talk to your caregiver about how things are at home. Your caregiver can help your family better understand how to support a person with a spinal cord injury.
  • You may want to join a support group. This is a group of people who also have spinal cord injuries. Ask your caregiver for the names and numbers of support groups in your town. You can contact one of the following national organizations for more information.
    • Paralyzed Veterans of America
      801 Eighteenth Street NW
      Washington, DC , 20006
      Phone: 1- 800 - 424-8200
      Web Address:
    • National Spinal Cord Injury Association
      1 Church Street, Suite 600
      Rockville , MD 20850
      Phone: 1- 800 - 962-9629
      Web Address:
    • American Spinal Cord Association
      2020 Peachtree Road, NW
      Atlanta, Georgia , 30309-1402
      Phone: 1- 404 - 355-9772
      Web Address:

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about spinal cord injury and pulmonary hygiene. You can then discuss choices with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what choices may be best for you. You always have the right to refuse and make your own decisions.The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.