Spinal cord injury: known and possible influences on the immune response to exercise

A spinal cord injury (SCI) can increase the risk of infection by impacting on many aspects of immune function; one particularly well-documented observation is a reduction in lymphocyte numbers. The vast majority of lymphoid cells express adrenergic receptors. Therefore, autonomic function loss and concomitant alterations in resting and post-exercise catecholamine concentrations, particularly so in individuals with a tetraplegia, may impact directly on immune cells and depress immunity. Other factors are further likely to contribute, examples including altered muscular, endocrine and cardiovascular function following SCI. However, some alterations, such as increases in natural killer cell cytotoxicity following exercise in those with a tetraplegia, are unrelated to the catecholamine response. Likewise, mucosal immunity in individuals with a tetraplegia appears to be similarly influenced by exercise as in the able-bodied population. Indeed, rehabilitation therapy and exercise can increase some measures of immunity and autonomic function in those with an SCI. It is therefore possible that compensatory mechanisms offset disability-related detriments. This may be by way of sympathetic reflex activity, receptor hypersensitivity, or parasympathetic and neuroendocrine adjustments. Future work needs to explore these mechanisms further to clarify the implications of an SCI on the immune response to exercise and susceptibility to infection. In this article, we review the impacts of an SCI on immune, and specifically, exercise immune function. The relevant anatomical and physiological foundations of the immune system are first briefly laid out in order to understand the potential impacts of neural and neuroendocrine dysfunction on the immune system. With the limited number of human studies available, we have then aimed specifically to gather all relevant existing literature on exercise immunology in individuals with an SCI in patient, recreationally active and athlete populations. We believe that an understanding of the impacts of exercise can provide a tool to help maintain or improve health in individuals with an SCI.