What makes a spinal cord injury very serious is that it can cause permanent paralysis of the entire body below the level of the injury. If your spinal cord is damaged at waist level, the legs and lower body can be paralyzed (paraplegia). But if your spinal cord is damaged higher, at neck level, the entire body below the neck can be paralyzed (quadriplegia).
Keep in mind that the backbone can be injured without any spinal cord injury. While a simple back injury can be painful and may require surgery, it is not as serious as an injury to the crucial nerves that make up the spinal cord inside those vertebrae.
Restoring Nerve Function
A great deal of research has been done on how to help the nerves heal and resume their normal tasks of:
- Carrying messages from the brain to specific muscles demanding response (motor nerves); or
- Taking messages from the body to the brain with information about touch, temperature, pressure etc. (sensory nerves).
Some nerves are both motor and sensory nerves (such as the large trigeminal nerve in the face and head); and some are just one or the other type.
Nerve cells (neurons) consist of a cell body and a long projection called an axon (also called the nerve fiber). The spinal cord is made up of long nerve fibers and it is known that when an axon is severed from the spinal cord, it can be rejoined and re-incorporated into the spinal cord. But so far physicians have been unable to guide it to any target (such as a muscle, body organ, or gland). This has left the nerve fiber unable to transmit messages to any part of the body.
Some Hopeful Research
At the University of California San Diego (UCSC) School of Medicine, researchers have made an important discovery about how nerve function can be restored. It was published in the August issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience. They found that by placing a growth hormone called neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) in a target structure, they could cause an axon to grow into that structure and form the electrical connection called a synapse.
They found that if they placed NT-3 on a wrong structure for that nerve, the nerve would still grow into it. This was both encouraging and possibly discouraging, since it was a way that healing with NT-3 could be successful, but also could go wrong.
“While our findings are very encouraging … they also highlight the complexity of restoring function in the injured spinal cord,” said Dr. Mark Tuszynski, director of UCSD’s Center for Neural Repair.
Use of NT-3 to restore nerve function is still in the research stage. If you have a loved one who has sustained a severe spinal cord injury and you would like to learn more about legal options, please call or email our personal injury lawyers today for a free case evaluation.