When any part of the spinal cord or nerves at the end of the spinal canal are damaged, it can result in permanent changes in sensation, strength, and bodily functions below the injury site. In the past, a spinal cord injury almost always spelled certain death. In the best case scenario, a survivor would be limited to a wheelchair, often with ongoing secondary problems like blood clots, kidney failure, pressure sores, and more.
But twentieth and twenty-first century medicine has given a second chance to many survivors of spinal cord injuries, using new antibiotics and new methods of care.
Advanced emergency care has allowed many patients to avoid infections and undergo aggressive rehabilitation to restore some level of nervous system function. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, new surgical techniques and developments have made the future for spinal cord injuries brighter than ever, including spinal nerve regeneration, cell replacement, neuroprotection, and neurorehabilitation.
There is currently no way to reverse spinal cord damage. But Mayo Clinic spells out several options during different stages of treatment:
Acute (early) stages of treatment
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Immediately after the injury, emergency personnel will immobilize the spine as gently and quickly as possible so as to prevent further injury. Once in the emergency room, doctors will make sure you are able to breathe, prevent shock, and work to prevent additional complications like cardiovascular issues and deep vein blood clots.
Methylprednisolone is an option for some patients. If administered during the first eight hours, some nerve cell damage can be avoided and some patients will experience mild improvement. Immobilization of the spine through metal braces or a rigid neck collar is another way to mitigate the pain and severity of a spinal cord injury.
Surgery is often necessary to minimize the risk of further pain or disability. Surgeons are able to remove fragments of bone, herniated disks, and fractured vertebrae that are compressing the spine.
Researchers and scientists are always working on new ways to prevent cell death, regenerate nerves, and control inflammation. Experimental treatments may be an option in certain spinal cord injury cases.
Rehabilitation is the next step for most spinal cord injury patients. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers, dieticians, and physiatrists are all equipped to handle the early stages of recovery through rehabilitative activities. Depending on the severity of the injury, they will work with the patient to redevelop motor skills, strengthen muscle function, and perform daily tasks.
Medications are often part of the ongoing treatment regimen and are used to regulate pain and muscle spasticity, as well as other bodily functions, during recovery.
MayoClinic.org has listed several new and innovative medical technologies that can help with spinal cord injury recovery. These include:
- Modern wheelchairs
- Computer adaptations
- Electronic aids to daily living
- Electrical stimulation devices
- Robotic gait training
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Approximately 12,000 spinal cord injuries occur every year in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. More than 250,000 Americans currently live with spinal cord injuries. The largest portion of those come from car accidents (36.5%), followed by falls, gunshot wounds, and sporting accidents.