A quarter of a million Americans are currently living with spinal cord injuries, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Although most people know this type of injury can be a devastating diagnosis, not everyone knows there are many different types of spinal cord injuries. The location of the injury along the spinal cord determines what parts of the body are affected. Different types of spinal cord injuries include:
- Cervical Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae C1-C8 and causes paralysis or weakness in both arms and legs. This is also known as quadriplegia or tetraplegia.
- Thoracic Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae T1-T12. These injuries can cause paralysis or weakness of the legs along with loss of physical sensation, bowel, bladder and sexual function.
- Lumbar Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae L1-L5 and result in weakness or paralysis of the legs. This is also known as paraplegia.
- Sacral Spinal Cord Injury: Affects vertebrae S1-S5. Sacral level injuries mainly cause loss of bowel and bladder function as well as sexual dysfunction. They can also cause weakness of paralysis of the hips and legs.
Injuries can also be complete or incomplete. Complete injuries are indicated by a total lack of sensory and motor function below the level of injury, whereas incomplete injuries are marked by some remaining sensation and movement (Source: Paralysis Resource Center).
With spinal cord injuries, the speed and quality of medical attention can dictate how the patient will live the rest of his or her life. Immediate treatment can include medications, immobilization and surgery.
One of the most important drugs used to treat spinal cord injuries is methylprednisolone, an adrenal corticosteroid that protects against further damage if administered within eight hours of injury. However, this drug may pose a risk of harmful side effects.
Clinical trials of a compound called GM-1 ganglioside show it may be another drug that can protect against secondary damage in these types of injuries. The compound is also showing promise in improving recovery during rehabilitation, a process that all victims of spinal cord injury have to undergo — sometimes for years.
Another promising therapy for spinal cord injury involves an electronic chip implanted in the brain. Studies in rats show the animals could move a prosthetic arm using only their thoughts.
Researchers from the University of Florida implanted an electronic chip into rats’ brains. A computer decoded the chip, and over time, the computer learned to adapt to the rats’ needs. When a rat thought about moving, the computer responded by moving a robotic arm.