I. WHAT IS THE SPINAL CORD?
The spinal cord is an extension of the brain
running down the body and stretching from the base of the scull
in adults up to about the level of the first lumbar vertebrae. The
main function of the spinal cord is to relay messages from the brain
to the rest of the body and to carry information from the rest of
the body back up to the brain where the messages are interpreted.
The best analogy one can use to describe the spinal cord is that
of a very intricate telephone wire. Any damage to this telephone
wire causes messages not to be relayed and thus information cannot
get from the periphery or from the rest of the body to the brain
and the brain does not have control of functions below where the
level of injury is and thus paralysis ensues. The spinal cord is
a very important structure in the body and thus is protected by
the vertebrae which are stacked on top of one another.
The vertebral column
is classically divided into various levels. There is 7 neck or cervical
vertebrae, 12 chest vertebrae or thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae
or lower back vertebrae and then there is 5 sacral vertebrae which are
fused together to form one solid bone called the sacrum and then 4 coccygeal
vertebrae again which is fused together to form the coccyx. Between each
vertebra there is a disc that allows some movement between the different
bones of the back bone.
As mentioned previously
the spinal cord runs within these vertebrae and at each level between
the vertebrae it gives off a nerve that basically provides function to
certain parts of the body. Thus is all the arm functions are related via
the cervical vertebrae and most of the leg functions via the lumbar vertebrae.
WHAT CAUSES INJURY TO THE SPINAL CORD?
Any mechanism that
causes injury to the vertebral column or the bones in the back can damage
the spinal cord. Thus the most common causes in South Africa at this stage
are either motor vehicle accidents where the bones are broken or gunshot
injuries where the bullet damages the spinal column and the spinal cord.
Other common causes include stabs, falls from heights, diving accidents
all of which contribute to the diverse possible causes of a spinal cord
of spinal cord injury include tumors, which affects the bones and then
causes pressure on the nerve structure or the spinal cord itself. Other
possible causes are a hernia at the disc that sometimes causes pressure
on the spinal cord and lastly but not as uncommon as the other is that
there is vascular cause, in other words that the blood supply to the cord
is damaged be that from an injury to the blood supply during surgery or
other traumatic causes of the disruption of the blood supply which then
disrupts the function of the spinal cord.
Children are a particular
sub group of patient’s who can sustain a spinal cord injury without
a major bony abnormality being present. What happens is that due to the
pliability and malleability of the child’s skeletal system he can
have a stretching out of the bones and ligaments in the vertebral column
that then causes trackie injury to the spinal cord without any obvious
bony pathology. This is the so called “Sciwora” deformity.
WHAT TYPES OF SPINAL CORD INJURIES ARE THERE?
The first and most
common distinction in type of spinal cord injuries either a tetraplegic
or in old term a quadriplegic or a paraplegic.
This refers to the
situation where a tetraplegic where both the arms and the legs are paralyzed
to a certain degree. A paraplegic the arm function and upper limbs functions
are normal and only the lower limb function is affected.
A further distinction
that is made is between a complete and an incomplete injury. A complete
lesion means that below the level where the injury is there is no function
or sparing. There is no sensation and no movement or voluntary control
of movement below the level of the injury.
In an incomplete legion
however, sometimes some of the messages do get through via the telephone
wire and thus the patient might be able to feel or have sensation below
the lesion. There might even be some motor function or movement below
where the level of the injury is. Thus the lesion is not complete termed
an incomplete legion.
Obviously there is
a vast array of different types of incomplete legions. In some cases there
is only sensory sparing without any motor- or movement sparing. In far
lighter cases there is virtually normal movement but a slight loss of
power on the other side of the scale.
in the vascular causes of a spinal cord injury it might be that in a cervical
central cord type pattern that the arms are worse effected than the legs
and that there is some normal movement in the legs but the arms are weak.
This is a classical central cord type of spinal cord injury. In cases
where only the anterior part of the spinal cord is damaged there is a
complete motor paralyses, in other words no movement but there might be
some preservation of light touch and position sense due to the posterior
or back part of the spinal cord still be intact.
HOW ARE INJURIES TO THE SPINAL COLUMN MANAGED?
As stated previously
the most common cause of spinal cord injury is a fracture or a dislocation
of the bones of the vertebral column. Although many people will have fractures
of the vertebral column without sustaining an injury to the spinal cord
itself. Up to 20 % of people with a fracture will have some varying degrees
of injury to the spinal cord. The way of managing these fractures depend
a lot on whether the injury is deemed to be stable or unstable.
Again a case is to
be made to stabilize unstable injuries via surgery as soon as the patient
is medically stable, in other words that there is no other life threatening
conditions. This enables the patient to be mobilized out of bed and to
partake in a rehabilitation program soon after the injury. It limits time
in hospital although it does not mean that the surgery performed will
necessarily enhance the recovery of the damaged spinal cord itself. It
must always be remembered that surgery to stabilize a fractured vertebrae
does not necessarily mean that the damaged spinal cord will recover.
There is also a point
to be made to manage these fractures conservatively. This means that the
patient does not undergo the risks involved in an operation. The negative
effect of this does however mean that the patient will need to stay in
bed for up to three months with regular turning. This can result further
complications especially pneumonia, bedsores and repeated urine tract
infections. If a conservative route is followed it is best that the patient
be managed in a unit where there is a clear understanding of the importance
of conservative management and that the staff in the unit is trained properly
to take care of the unstable fracture.
In our modern socio
economic situation in South Africa at this stage very few of these fractures
are managed conservatively unless they have been stable from the start
because of the length of stay involved in managing these fractures conservatively.
HOW IS THE ACUTE SPINAL INJURED PATIENT MANAGED, AND WHAT POSSIBLE COMPLICATIONS
CAN THERE BE?
In the ideal circumstances
an acute spinal injured patient should be transferred to a dedicated spinal
injuries unit where these patients are cared for by a team of professionals
who have experience in managing the unique problems associated with a
spinal cord injury. The ideal should be that the patient must be admitted
to a High Care or Intensive Care Unit. Initially the patient might develop
what is called “spinal shock”. Due to the paralyses and loss
of reflex activity in the damaged spinal cord blood pressure tends to
be on the lowish side and this is associated with a low heart rate. As
long as the blood pressure is maintain above renal per fusion pressure
which is about 80-mm of mercury this condition termed of spinal shock
can be managed without the intervention of inotropic drugs but it should
be monitored carefully. Spinal shock can last for a period of between
three to four weeks and is usually self limiting. Also the more proximal
legion is in other words the higher the legion is more severe the spinal
shock and spinal shock phase.
The second most common
complication and one that is often overlooked, is called a “Paralytic
ileus”. What happens is that due to the loss of innervations of
the movement of the small bowels, the small bowels become temporarily
paralyzed. This result in an accumulation of gas and fluid in the abdomen
and obviously distention of the abdomen. Especially in the quadriplegic
patient this is an absolute disaster as this event splints the diaphragm.
The complication is easily enough managed by passing a naso gastric tube,
in other words the tube running via the nose and the esophagus into the
stomach to decompress the abdominal contents.
The next possible
complication is what’s called an acute peptic ulceration. Approximately
3 to 5 % of patients with spinal cord injury will have an acute peptic
ulcer. This can be prevented by prophylactic administration of antacids
either via the nose tube or via the intravenous route.
The next possible
complication is over distention of the bladder. All patients who have
a spinal cord injury confirmed or suspected should have a urinary catheter
in- situ. This has 2 functions. It makes sure that the bladder and the
kidneys are adequately drained preventing the build-up of urine and over
distention and damage of the bladder wall. Secondly it is important to
monitor the amount of urine produced on an hourly basis by the patient.
This should be at least one-ml per kilogram per hour. If this occurs one
can safely assume that the patient is adequately resusitated.
The ventilator system
of a patient, especially a quadriplegic patient is very complex and should
be managed by a specialist in the field. A quadriplegic patient usually
has paralysis of the inter costal muscles, in other words the muscles
of the chest wall that helps with breathing the only muscle that still
functioning in the majority of cases of the cervical spinal cord injury
is the diaphragm. Often especially the initial phases the diaphragm itself
is not powerful enough and does not provide adequate ventilatory support.
This might necessitate that the patient be intubated and ventilated for
a period of time. The majority of cases the patient can be weaned off
the ventilator once the spinal shock phase has past. However, this might
take a long period and much longer than is normally the case in a ventilator
The next possible
complication is venous drainage complications. The most common cause of
the problems and death in the spinal cord injured patient is a deep venous
thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. What this means is that due to the
lack of muscle contractility and movement in the lower limbs that the
blood in the veins of the leg clots and forms and thrombus. This then
can brake off and cause a blood clot to the lung which can be fatal. This
is managed by preventing these clots from forming with the most commonly
used drug at this stage is a daily subcutaneous administration of low
molecular weight Heparin. The initial starting time of this should be
at about day 5 after the injury. If it is started earlier there might
be secondary bleeds into the spinal column itself worsening the neurological
fall out. If it is started later than day 5 it might be too late to prevent
the formation of deep venous thrombosis. Again this should be discussed
on an individual patient to patient case with the Physicians taking care
of the patient in the Intensive Care Unit.
WHAT ABOUT BLADDER FUNCTION?
As it is obvious from
the above the spinal injured patient’s in the majority of cases
have no voluntary control over there bladders. Usually what happens is
that they developed a large over distended bladder because they have no
sensation that the bladder is full and it might empty spontaneously in
what we called an over flow incontinence. To prevent this from happening
a catheter should be placed immediately or as soon is possible after injury.
The catheter should be of a high quality silicone coated variety as this
can be left in-situ for up to 6 weeks.
Regarding the long
term management of the bladder function the ideal would be to be catheter
free as far as possible. This can be achieved in several ways which should
be discussed with the Urologist forming part of the rehabilitation team.
The most common way
of managing this is to do what is called “clean intermittent self
catheterization”. This means that every 3 to 4 hours the patient
goes and passes the catheter drains the bladder and then remove the catheter
again. This obviously implies that the patient has very good hand function
has good mobility. He is able to transfer him in and out of a toilet and
has the mental capacity to manage this.
Again this is one
of many options. The other option is to leave an indwelling catheter in-situ.
This ideally should be a supra pubic catheter and not a trans urethral
catheter to prevent further complications. Basically the final decision
of how the bladder should be managed should be made in conjunction with
an Urologist. The ideal is at 6 weeks post injury to perform what is called
an urodynamic study where the behavior of the bladder is evaluated and
appropriate suggestions can then be made.
HOW WILL WE MANAGE THE BOWEL MOVEMENTS?
As stated previously
and there is obvious a spinal cord injured there is no sensation when
a bowel movement occurs or when the bowel motion will happen. In the majority
of cases in supra sacral legions, in other words legions above the sacrum
one has what is called a hyper tonic external sphincter once the spinal
shock phase has passed. This means that the patient can be taught to be
continent. Bowel movements are reestablished by using an alternate day
regime of laxatives that is taken the evening before the bowel movement
is to occur to make the stool bulk soft and then a movement is initiated
by placing a suppository via the anus. This is the old and trusted method
of managing a bowel movement and will in most cases insure that the patient
is continent regarding fecal control.
Another option is
to use what’s called a bowel irrigation system where a manual wash
out of the lower colon and rectum is performed by inserting a plastic
tube and warm saline is washed through the bowel. Again this is an option
that should be investigated and will form part of the rehabilitation program
in an appropriate designed unit.
WHAT ARE PRESSURE SORES AND WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT IT?
Pressure sores are
a brake down in the skin area over lying bony prominence. The main cause
of pressure sores as the name states is undue pressure on an affected
area. In initial phases after injury the patient is unable to turn himself
and to relief pressure thus should be done in a spinal unit via 2 hourly
turns relieving the pressure areas. Once the patient is mobile in a wheelchair
he needs to be taught how to manage his pressure areas. This is usually
done by pressure relieving maneuvers showed to him by therapists and should
be done a minimum of twice every hour. The patient should have adequate
education and how to manage these pressure areas as prevention is far
better than cure.
Once a pressure sore
does occur however, the treatment is conservatively first of all. One
has to take the patient off the pressure sore and this means usually prolong
period bed rest. The area should be debrided and cleaned and wound management
principles instigated. Chronic anemia associated with the pressure sores
should be addresses as well as a high protein diet. Once all this has
been done surgery might be an option either by direct closure or local
skin flaps to close the pressure sore area.
Once this has been
done rehabilitation should then again be re-instituted to make sure that
the patient understands the importance of pressure relief.
WHAT ARE SPASMS, HOW ARE THEY MANAGED?
Spasticity is a usual
part of the spinal cord injury or except for the very low level lumbar
spine type injuries where lower motor neuron injury has occurred. This
usually being distal or lower than the L1 level. In the levels above T12
spasticity usually returns within 6 weeks to 3 months after the injury.
The reason for this is that there is no central inhibition of the reflex
arc. If one should stimulate the skin of a patient the message travels
via the nerve root back to the spinal cord where usually it is inhibited
by the brain but the brain has no inhibition on this arc no and the message
then just shunted out via the same nerve back to the muscle and this causes
a jumping motion. Spasticity is usually a useful sign that the spinal
cord is busy recovering. It is also in certain cases very useful to help
with activities of daily living such as transferring in and out of a motorcar
or in out of the chair. Thus all spasticity or spasms is not usually a
When spasticity needs
to be treated it is when it interferes with normal activities of daily
living. The first line of treatment is active physiotherapy where one
has to ensure that the entire joint affected by the spastisity has a full
range of movement is stretch out to the maximum length. Also factors that
might aggravate spasticity such as urine tract infection, pressure sores,
kidney stones or bowel impaction should be excluded.
The next line of treatment
is medication where certain drugs can be used to alleviate the spasms
and depress the activity of the reflex arc. Again this should not be used
before all the physical measures have been tried.
The last option in
management of spasticity is to use an implantable device where a small
pump is inserted under the abdominal skin with a catheter into the spinal
cord delivering certain drugs into the spinal cord area itself and thus
alleviating the spasms. This is usually a last resort.
WHAT ABOUT SEX AND FERTILITY?
Sex and fertility
in the spinal cord injured patient’s as with all the previous topics
is a huge topic that virtually needs a discussion document on its own.
If one looks at the male spinal cord injured patient in a complete legion
the patient after the spinal shock phase will be able to achieve reflex
erections. This will not however be accompanied by any sensation.
In the incomplete
legion there might be varying degrees of sensation and ability to achieve
emission and orgasm depending where the level and what the completeness
of the level of injury is. This does not however mean that the patient
cannot be sexually active. There are several drugs and mechanical devises
on the market to help the patient to achieve an erection and to maintain
it if he is not able by reflex activity to achieve an erection.
As far as fertility
goes up until 10 years ago it was stated that all males spinal cord injured
patients are infertile however, with technology available these days,
especially regarding IVF and semen harvesting techniques it is no longer
true even patients that have been wheelchair bound in spinal cord injured
for an extended periods of time. This however, remains an area of spinal
cord medicine that needs further investigation and that will in future
play a far greater role than is currently envisaged.
Regarding the female
with a spinal cord injury sexual function and fertility usually return
and is quite normal except for lubrication which might require some help.
Fertility should not be effect by a spinal cord injury however pregnancy
can be complicated especially in the high quadriplegic patient.
WHAT ABOUT LIFE EXPECTANCY AND COMPLICATIONS?
Up until the Second
World War the life expectancy of a quadriplegic patient was less than
3 months, the paraplegic patient less than 6 months. However, with modern
techniques of managing bladder problems and with managing pressure sores
this is no longer true. In first world developed countries the life expectancy
of a quadriplegic and paraplegic spinal cord injured patient is very close
is usually related to renal function where improper bladder and kidney
care will result in renal failure and the expiry of the patient however,
if the techniques taught in rehab to the patient is strictly adhered is
regular follow-ups is undertaken by the patient there is no reason for
him not to expect normal kidney function well into old age. Respiratory
care in a quadriplegic patient is another area of problem or cause for
concern where complications might develop and once again if techniques
taught in the rehabilitation process are adhered to a normal life expectancy
can be expected.
WHAT DOES A REHABILITATION TEAM DO AND WHAT SHOULD IT CONSIST OF?
a multi faceted labour intensive undertaking that should be conducted
by individuals who have the necessary knowledge and experience in managing
spinal cord injuries. As these injuries are very uncommon and not necessarily
something that the general medical personal deal with on a day to day
basis it is imperative that centers of excellence or rehab centers be
established where one can take care of the needs of these patients. Furthermore
one individual with one specific professional inclination will not be
able to address all the needs of a spinal cord injured patient thus ideally
a rehab team should consist of the following persons.
Firstly a medical
doctor with a special interest in rehabilitation medicine. This doctor
should function as a team leader to access the rehabilitation process
and further make sure that the medical problems of the patient is addressed.
He should have frequent access to other specialties including an Urologist,
Othropaedic Surgeon, Neuro-Surgeon and a Physician on an as needed basis
to make sure that the medical needs and problems of the patient is adequately
addressed. Furthermore he should facilitate the rehabilitation process
and act as a team leader.
Secondly a Physiotherapist
is an important part of the rehabilitation team. The Physiotherapist role
is that to make sure that the patient’s physical condition is adequate
and that his joint function and functional abilities are adequately rehabilitated
and the patient must be strong enough to do transfers to maintain his
posture and balance and to have the necessary physical skills so cope
with life in a wheelchair.
An Occupational Therapist
is the third important part of the rehabilitation team. The Occupational
Therapist role is to ensure that the patient is independent in regards
of his activities of daily living. He or she must the taught how to manage
dressing, wheelchair skills need to be addressed and necessary assistive
devises for the home environment should be provided. Also the Occupational
Therapist will need to make sure that the home environment to which the
patient returns meets his of her needs.
Fourthly a Social
Worker is also an important part of the rehabilitation team. The Social
Worker will need to help with the social reintegration of the patient
back into society. Also to help with liaison between the rehabilitation
team and the patient’s employer and make sure that all the necessary
social grants and activities is addressed during the rehabilitation process.
Fifthly a Psychologist
is necessary to help the patient through the traumatic events surrounding
his injury and to help the family cope with emotional stresses and strains
that are inherent in adapting to life with a spinal cord or disabled individual.
Sixthly a seating
specialist is helpful giving the patient advise as to what possible wheelchairs
and assistive devises are available on the market.
This team should have
regular interaction with one another and with the patient forming a central
part in the team approach to the rehabilitation process.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
At this moment as
far as one can reasonably access there is no known cure for a spinal cord
injury. Research is ongoing and there are a lot of promising new avenues
are being discovered virtually on a daily basis. Several different drug
therapies have been tried and do show promise. These include calcium channel
blocky antibiotics such as Minomycin have been shown to be beneficial
in spinal cord injuries. Surgical techniques including bridging the gap
where the defect in spinal cord is with silicone implants have shown some
promise but all these techniques at this stage are still experimental.
The most commonly
asked and commonly propagated cure for spinal cord injury is stem cells.
Once again one has to remember that this is still an experimental therapy.
Stem cells show great promise and is possibly one of the most exciting
and promising avenues of research at this stage. The clinical use of stem
cells at this stage is still in what is termed phase 2 studies. Phase
2 studies mean that there is some laboratory evidence but it cannot be
condoned as clinical use at this stage. Hopefully in future this recommendation
will change and we will find a cure.
I am sure that this
cure is not far off at this stage but one has to weigh the scientific
evidence very carefully and make sure that the therapy propagated has
stood the test of clinical science
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