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What are the treatments for spinal cord injury (SCI)?

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Unfortunately, there are at present no known ways to reverse damage to the spinal cord. However, researchers are continually working on new treatments, including prostheses and medications, which may promote regeneration of nerve cells or improve the function of the nerves that remain after an SCI.

SCI treatment currently focuses on preventing further injury and empowering people with an SCI to return to an active and productive life.

At the Scene of the Incident

Quick medical attention is critical to minimizing the effects of head, neck, or back trauma. Therefore, treatment for an SCI often begins at the scene of the injury.

Emergency personnel typically:

  • Immobilize the spine as gently and quickly as possible using a rigid neck collar and a rigid carrying board
  • Use the carrying board to transport the patient to the hospital

In the Emergency Room

Once the patient is at the hospital, health care providers focus on:

  • Maintaining the person's ability to breathe
  • Immobilizing the neck to prevent further spinal cord damage

Health care providers also may treat an acute injury with:

  • Surgery. Doctors may use surgery to remove fluid or tissue that presses on thespinal cord (decompression laminectomy); remove bone fragments, disk fragments, or foreign objects; fuse broken spinal bones; or place spinal braces.1
  • Traction. This technique stabilizes the spine and brings it into proper alignment.
  • Methylprednisolone (Medrol). If this steroid medication is administered within 8 hours of injury, some patients experience improvement. It appears to work by reducing damage to nerve cells and decreasing inflammation near the site of injury.
  • Experimental treatments. Scientists are pursuing research on how to halt cell death, control inflammation, and promote the repair or regeneration of nerves.2 See "Is there a cure for SCI?"

People with SCI may benefit from rehabilitation, including3,4:

  • Physical therapy geared toward muscle strengthening, communication, and mobility
  • Use of assistive devices such as wheelchairs, walkers, and leg braces
  • Use of adaptive devices for communication
  • Occupational therapy focused on fine motor skills
  • Techniques for self-grooming and bladder and bowel management
  • Coping strategies for dealing with spasticity and pain
  • Vocational therapy to help people get back to work with the use of assistive devices, if needed
  • Recreational therapy such as sports and social activities
  • Improved strategies for exercise and healthy diets (obesity and diabetes are potential risk factors for persons with SCI)
  • Functional electrical stimulation for assistance with restoration of neuromuscular function, sensory function, or autonomic function (e.g., bladder, bowel, or respiratory function).5

  1. PubMed Health. (2010). Spinal cord trauma. Retrieved June 27, 2012, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002061/ [top]
  2. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2012). Spinal cord injury: Hope through research. Retrieved May 22, 2012, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/sci/detail_sci.htm [top]
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2012). Spinal cord injury: Hope through research. Retrieved May 22, 2012, from http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/sci/detail_sci.htm [top]
  4. Tator, C. H., & Benzel, E. C. (Eds.). (2000). Contemporary management of spinal cord injury: From impact to Rehabilitation, 2nd ed. Rolling Meadows, IL: American Association of Neurological Surgeons. [top]
  5. Evans, R. W., Wilberger, J. E., & Bhatia, S. Traumatic disorders. In: Goetz, C. G. (Ed.). (2007). Textbook of clinical neurology (3rd ed.), chap. 51. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier. [top]

Last Updated Date: 07/30/2013
Last Reviewed Date: 05/28/2013
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