How to fix a spinal cord injury

Spinal cord injuries have the potential to be devastating and life-changing events. After an injury has taken place, clinicians decide the course of treatment. Drug treatments of spinal cord injuries are limited, and current options are often just to prevent the injury getting worse, as opposed to reversing the damage.

One treatment option to help heal spinal cord injuries is surgery. This can involve using stainless steel instruments or specialised devices, or fusing bones that make up the spine in order to prevent any movement.

Stainless steel rods and screws to stop the spine moving (Blausen gallery, wikijournal of medicine)

Theoretically, it makes sense that stopping the bones in the spine from moving will prevent anything pressing into the spinal cord, the realities are more complex.

The surgical procedures are invasive. Minimally invasive surgery to fix the spine does not exist, so the procedures are major operations. This increases the potential risks of the operation, for example blood loss as well as other associated risks with implanting devices, and any surgery in general, such as infection. Not only does surgery carry large risks but these devices prohibit any movement of the spine. This can make all sorts of daily tasks difficult, like bending over to put your socks on; or twisting around to look over your shoulders.

An alternative noninvasive treatment can be a brace. These are worn to support the spine and prevent movement, however they can be uncomfortable and are unlikely to be a long term solution.

Orthopaedic back brace which may be indicated in spinal instability (newcenterorthopedic.com)

So, clinicians have hard decisions to make. Should they put a patient through surgery to potentially reduce the risk of future injury? Or is this intervention doing more harm than good? Neither question is easy to answer, and more research is needed to draw firm conclusions! Might we develop minimally invasive spinal surgery or develop more therapeutic treatments to spinal cord injury?

Bio

This article was written by Katie Timms a PhD student at the University of Leeds at the Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering where she is researching spinal cord injury. You can reach her on twitter @KVTimms

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