Over the last 75 years, there have been massive advances in the treatment and rehabilitation of spinal cord injuries. Where a spinal cord injury (SCI) once meant a lifetime confined to a hospital bed, advances in technology and treatment have given new life to those who have suffered an SCI.
As medical and technological progress continues, there are exciting new possibilities for treating spinal cord injuries. Many of these developments are still in their infancy, but it provides a glimpse into the exciting future of spinal cord injury treatment, rehabilitation, and repair. Here are eight of the most exciting developments that we’ve seen:
- Therapeutic Hypothermia/Targeted Temperature Mangement – This method involves the deliberate reduction in body temperature and has shown promise in two areas: damage reduction and nerve repair. Evidence suggests that targeted temperature management can limit the secondary nerve damage that often occurs after a spinal cord injury while also providing some improvement in long-term recovery of function.
- Riluzole Treatment – The use of riluzole to treat patients with acute SCI is currently undergoing trials. The hypothesis is that riluzole will act as a neuroprotective drug if administered shortly after a spinal cord injury. Early evidence points to riluzole effectively reducing tissue destruction while promoting functional recovery.
- Spinal Cord Plasticity – Back in 2001, it was discovered that some function can be restored after physiotherapy. Through exercise and therapy, nerve fibers at the injured location sprouted new inter-connecting fibers – a process known as plasticity. And while the full significance of this plasticity is unclear, it provides an intriguing look into a possible future of spinal cord repair.
- Nerve Grafting – Polish and British scientists recently transplanted olfactory ensheathing cells into a damaged spinal cord. A small trip of nerve tissue from the ankle was also used to create a bridge across the damaged cord – allowing the olfactory ensheathing cells to stimulate the spinal cords to regenerate.
- Botulinum Toxin (Botox) – Injections of botulinum toxin have been found to improve extremity function as well as decrease pain. One study found that, among tested patients, 56% noted an increase in ambulation, 71% in positioning, 78% in upper-extremity function, and 83.3% in pain reduction. And unlike some other treatments, botulinum toxin did not have to be administered shortly after the time of injury.
- Chondriotinase – One complication in spinal cord repair is the development of scar tissue that blocks any potential nerve regeneration. A 2013 study points to the possibility of using the chondroitinase ABC enzyme to remove scar tissue and increase plasticity – opening up a wide range of potential spinal cord repair treatments in the future.
- Adipose-Derived Stem Cells – Stem cells taken from fat tissue and implanted into damaged spinal cords has shown promise in helping to restore nerve function. One study found that when combined with Chondroitinase ABC injections, these stem cells improved the motor function of rats. The treatment not only improved function but also reduced spinal cavities.
- Thought Control – It is hard to say what the future of spinal cord repair holds, but one that seems to come right out of the pages of science fiction is the use of thought control to bypass damaged nerves. This technique uses a brain implant that receives neural signals to send information around the damaged spinal cord and directly to an extremity. While the full use of this treatment is still far off, there has already been at least one successful test
Of course, we never know what the future will hold. But these eight advances in spinal cord repair and rehabilitation are encouraging as we look to the future. As we continue to learn and understand the nature of the human body, there will surely be more exciting advances in this field. And one day we hope to see spinal cord injuries become fully repairable with modern technology.