With advancements in medical technology and practices over the last several decades, the prognosis for an individual with a spinal cord injury (SCI) is improving. One of the most critical factors in a person’s recovery is whether they receive early medical intervention and effective ongoing treatments. The sooner that treatment is implemented to strengthen the muscles below the injury site and to minimize additional damage to spinal cord tissue, the better the prognosis will be for that individual.
There isn’t just one type of spinal cord injury. There are two levels of completeness when it comes to spinal cord injuries: complete and incomplete. The severity of the injury impacts the outlook of an individual’s recovery prognosis. But what do each of these terms mean?
- Complete spinal cord injuries are those in which the signals between the brain and spinal cord have been compromised by a severance of the spinal cord, resulting in a loss of sensory and motor function below the injury site.
- Incomplete spinal cord injuries are those in which the signals from the brain are not completely compromised and the individual retains some sensory and motor function below the injury site.
Spinal cord injuries account for approximately 17,000 new injury cases every year (not including individuals who die at the scene of an accident), according to studies cited by the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. However, incomplete spinal cord injuries are becoming more common, thanks in part to better treatment and increased knowledge about how best to respond to a suspected SCI.
Let’s explore a few of the sci technology advances that are either in the works or currently being used to help SCI survivors recover some function as part of their recovery.
These technological-organic interfaces enable the brain to bypass nerve cells that have been damaged by an injury to the spinal cord. When implanted, these devices use brain signals to help to restore voluntary muscle movement control to paralyzed muscles, enabling use that would help to regain some use of a limb and reduce potential muscle atrophy. In some cases, hand and arm orthotics have been paired with these devices to provide patients with hand functions.
Robotics have become increasingly popular in a lot of markets. The medical field is no different. Researchers and physical therapists are using wearable technology, essentially robotic exoskeletons, to help paralyzed individuals stand, walk, and turn again and achieve knee or hip flexion. Researchers believe that repetitive walking patterns may help the brain and spinal cord collaborate in rerouting brain signals. Learn more about how a robotic exoskeleton helped a paralyzed man compete in the first-ever Cybathlon in Fall 2016.
Functional Electrical Stimulation
Functional electrical stimulation (FES), which uses a computer and electrodes to deliver low level bursts of electricity to stimulate paralyzed muscles and generate muscle contractions, is achieving increasingly promising results. This technology is being used as a way to try to restore function that is lost after an individual sustains a spinal cord injury. Some patients who have undergone FES therapy have experienced improvements in bladder and bowel control, hand function, and respiration without the use of a ventilator.
FES includes epidural electrical stimulation (EES), which helps to reactivate and use remaining intact neural networks within the spinal cord to direct the movements required to stand and take steps. Discover how electrical stimulation helped a patient move his legs for the first time in years.
Experimental stem cell research on animals with spinal cord injuries is showing promising results. Stem cells, which are undifferentiated cells that adapt to build or repair tissues in the areas they are injected, are capable of transforming into specialized cell types. However, neurons have limited regeneration abilities, and researchers are studying how they can be used to treat SCIs. Some researchers also have been working to develop and use oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs), a form of spinal cord cell, to help regenerate the protective layer of myelin that surrounds the nerves of the spinal cord that is destroyed after an SCI is sustained.
Virtual reality is taking healing to a whole new level through a non-invasive method to help reestablish the link between patients’ brains and their bodies below the sites of their injuries. Some studies have shown results in reawakening inactive nerve endings, sending brain signals that allow for renewed voluntary movement and sensations in pelvic region and legs. This technology has been used to help multiple paraplegic patients recover partial sensation and muscle control in their lower extremities.
While there is not a cure for paralysis, researchers are making significant strides toward creating technologies and medical treatments that may make that a possibility in the future. However, many of these treatments come at a high cost.
If your spinal cord injury is the result of someone else’s action or a faulty product and have not yet explored the possibility of receiving compensation for your injuries, speak with an experienced personal injury lawyer who specializes in SCIs today to learn about your options.