Alcohol Use After A Spinal Cord Injury


It is widely embraced in our culture to have a drink or two when needing to ‘take the edge off’ after a stressful day. A lot of people convince themselves that they need alcohol in order to be sociable or relax. It is common knowledge that alcohol in excess can be severely harmful to your health, but people with a SCI may not be aware that this is exceptionally true for them.

If your loved one has recently survived a spinal cord injury, they are going to have a difficult time facing each day and may not always feel as thankful for their survival as you are. Drinking alcohol will be a tempting escape for them, so it is important that you both have an awareness of the real harm that it can cause.  

Alcohol Use and SCI

Alcohol slows down the functions of the brain. Because of this one’s memory, judgment, and coordination are compromised. As a result, a person can have a hard time following their necessary steps of care, such as:

  • shifting positions according to schedule
  • bowel and bladder care
  • operating a wheelchair or other devices that are made to assist
  • remembering to check the safety conditions of the limbs
  • judging the combination of alcohol use with medications

People with a SCI are more vulnerable to alcohol’s poisonous effects because:

  • the weight loss after SCI may cause a person to misjudge how much alcohol they can handle
  • it lowers the body’s ability to fight infections
  • alcohol lowers the body’s immune function and lowered immunity can extend up to two months, even after the person has stopped drinking
  • with low immune function, a body has a tougher time fighting urinary tract, bladder, and skin infections

How To Avoid Issues With Alcohol

The best way to avoid any issues with alcohol is to abstain from drinking completely. If this is not possible for someone and they still continue to drink, it should be done in very small amounts.

They should also take care to:

  • follow their doctor’s advice about how much alcohol is safe to drink
  • monitor how much alcohol is being consumed and how often
  • keep shifting position according to schedule
  • continuously empty the bladder when drinking to avoid infections
  • check with their doctor about the risks of combining alcohol with their medications

Knowing If Alcohol Has Become a Problem

Questions that will help indicate whether or not one’s alcohol use has turned into abuse are:

  • Do you ever feel like you should drink less?
  • Does your drinking tend to bother others?
  • Has your drinking ever made you feel guilty?
  • Have you ever consumed alcohol to wake up or get rid of a hangover?

Just by answering yes to one of these questions is a cause for concern. 81-97% of people who say ‘yes’ to those questions have a real issue with abusing alcohol. Everyone wants to think that they are the exception and that they have everything under control. In the case of a SCI, judging warning signs is especially difficult because these behaviors can often be “mistakenly blamed on disability or what you may think of as ‘just getting older’.”

A few more red flags include:

  • drinking to reduce anxiety, forget things, and feel better
  • unhealthy nutritional habits
  • drinking alone or in secret
  • making a ritual out of drinking
  • medical and financial issues having resulted from drinking
  • feeling uncomfortable and irritable when sober
  • lethargy and disinterest in hobbies that were once enjoyable
  • frequent falls and accidents
  • poor hygiene and lack of self care

Choosing a Healthier Lifestyle

There are many resources for those struggling with alcohol abuse, and they really do help. This is a very difficult time, and you can only make a positive change by asking for the help that you require. The first step is acknowledging that help is needed, and that that is okay.

Older adults have the highest success rate and greatest one year sobriety rate after treatment.” The onset of abuse is commonly in response to grief or illness and the only way to treat this is by addressing the issue straight on. Now is the time to make the choice to live a healthier lifestyle and acknowledge that a healthy life is so  important. If you are concerned, speak to your healthcare provider about the resources available to you and stop the issue before it gets any worse.

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Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Recovery & Rehabilitation, Health & Exercise

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