Nothing can prepare you for the moment when you receive the news that your loved one has been severely injured with a spinal cord injury (SCI) or a traumatic brain injury (TBI). However, when you suddenly find yourself in that situation, you often have to put yourself aside and focus on the immediate needs of your loved one. This means looking into different types of medical treatment to help them recover from their traumatic injury.
Each year, the families of more than 17,500 spinal cord injury survivors face this type of situation. In the U.S. alone, the most recent estimates from the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) show that there are between 247,000 to 358,000 people living with SCIs each year. When it comes to TBIs, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 2.8 million TBI-related emergency department (ED) visits, hospitalizations, and deaths occurred in 2013 alone (2013 is the most recent year that this information has been reported).
Spinal cord injuries and TBIs are like snowflakes: Every injury is unique and affects each person differently — even when they share similar patterns or circumstances for how they occur. For example, two people can be t-boned in similar car accidents and wind up with entirely different injuries. Even those who may end up with similar general types of injuries may experience different effects ranging from loss of certain sensory and motor functions to full paralysis for people with SCIs, and memory loss, minimally conscious states, or comas for TBI survivors.
Because the resulting injuries can vary, it also means that the methods of treatment that can be used to help your loved one will also vary. Treatment methods typically will depend on several factors, including:
- The location of the injury where the damage occurred on the spinal cord;
- The severity of the damage to the spinal cord nerves or brain;
- Whether a TBI is an open wound, a closed head wound, or a crushing injury; and
- How quickly the person receives treatment for their injury.
While there is no “cure” as of yet for spinal cord injuries — no way to outright reverse the damage — there are medical treatments that can help some patients recover motor or sensory functions.
Traumatic brain and spinal cord injury treatments come in a variety of forms, including:
- Surgical solutions;
- Prescription medications;
- Therapies (psychological, physical and occupational);
- Activity-Based Therapy; and
- Experimental treatments.
Let’s explore each of these traumatic injury treatment options more in-depth.
Treatments for Spinal Cord Injuries and Traumatic Brain Injuries
Spinal compression surgery can be a great option for some spinal cord injury survivors. The surgery may be able to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord by removing an object that may be pressing against it or otherwise impeding it, such as a foreign object or bone fragments. Surgery also provides the surgeon with an opportunity to determine whether the spine itself or any of its vertebral segments may need to be stabilized to prevent further damage to the spinal cord.
With regard to traumatic brain injury, part of the skull may be surgically removed temporarily via a decompressive craniectomy to allow the brain to expand without being squeezed, which can help to reduce brain swelling over time. Additionally, for open wound TBIs, surgery can remove any foreign bodies that have broken through the skull, such as a bullet, knife, or another object that impedes the brain.
Pain is a common side effect of SCIs and TBIs and can range in level for survivors. For some, it may be a relatively minor pain that comes and goes; for others, it may be chronic and seemingly unbearable. Prescription medications can be used to help with the pain.
Additionally, medications also can be used to treat a number of other health-related issues that can result from these injuries, such as:
- Depression and other psychological disorders;
- Secondary infections;
- Muscle tremors or convulsions; and
- Memory and cognition issues.
Physical, Occupational, and Psychological Therapies
Physical and occupational therapy can help survivors of spinal cord and brain injuries regain function and capabilities that they lost. In some cases, people are able to re-learn how to walk, eat, and care for themselves in terms of personal hygiene.
There are a number of hospitals and rehabilitation centers throughout the United States that are geared to specifically help people with traumatic spinal cord injuries. Additionally, many of these centers also offer mental health counseling as well.
Another form of therapeutic activity comes in the form of activity-based therapy (ABT). There are ABT centers throughout the U.S. as well, and these treatments have shown promising results in helping SCI survivors regain strength and motor function. The exercises involve repeated movements, which aim to help your loved one to establish functional movement patterns while physically being out of their wheelchair.
Spinal cord injury research has come a long way — even since the 1980s. Whereas before, SCI survivors were viewed as being stuck to a life in a wheelchair, today, a variety of experimental treatments are now being studied. Some of the different types of treatments being studied include:
- Stem Cell Therapy: This type of therapy involves the injection of embryonic stem cells into the spinal cords of patients.
- Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES): FES treatment uses a computer and electrodes to deliver low-level bursts of electricity to stimulate paralyzed muscles and induce muscle contractions
- Virtual Reality (VR): This non-invasive method of treatment aims to help reestablish the link between patients’ brains and their bodies below their injuries in the spinal cord. Some studies have shown results in reawakening inactive nerve endings and some voluntary movement and sensations in pelvic region and legs.
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Written by Spinal Cord TeamSpinalCord.com has been created as a resource for patients of spinal cord injuries and their families. Find everything you need to learn more about your injury, locate a doctor or treatment center, or discover financial relief to support you through this difficult time.
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