This is one of the most often asked questions of survivors of spinal cord injury and their loved ones. After they understand where the injury has occurred and how this will affect function, they want to know if the current state will be permanent.
These are tough questions for any doctor to answer, and they are tough answers for the survivor and his or her loved ones to hear. Some recovery is possible. The amount of recovery will depend upon a number of factors, specifically the location of the injury, the severity of the injury, how quickly treatment was accessed following the injury, and the type and amount of rehabilitation used.
The Spinal Cord Can't Heal Itself
That being said, there is no “cure” for spinal cord injury. When the axons in the spinal cord are crushed or torn beyond repair, a chain of biochemical and cellular events occur that kill neurons, strip axons of their protective myelin insulation, and cause an inflammatory response. Changes in blood flow and excessive release of neurotransmitters cause additional damage. Once the damage has been done, the area of the spinal cord that’s damaged no longer has the ability to relay messages between the brain and other parts of the body.
But why can’t these injuries heal themselves, as they do in other parts of the body? As we mentioned before, injuries to the spinal cord are extremely complicated, and affect highly individual cells that are so specialized they are unable to repair or regenerate. So the spinal cord can’t heal itself like the other parts of our bodies.
Research To Help Repair Injury
This is often an incredibly frustrating thing for survivors and their loved ones to hear. After all, if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t scientists and medical professionals figure out a way to repair the spinal cord? Complete restoration of the spinal cord would require the types of therapies that would reverse things like changes to the body and aging, and there are currently no therapies that can do this. This is, in part, because research regarding spinal cord injury is not as well funded as research for more common types of injuries and diseases. Because spinal cord injury affects a relatively small population, research dollars are allocated accordingly. And that means that not enough research dollars have gone into spinal cord injury to advance research to a point where complete repair is possible.
That being said, despite lack of funds, researchers are working hard every day to develop dozens of new therapies designed to treat symptoms, slow progression, and repair some damage to the spinal cord. These treatments fall under the categories of protecting nerves, rejuvenating nerves, re-routing nerves, replacing cells, and regenerating the spinal cord. Four treatments in particular—stem cell treatment, peripheral nerve re-routing, suppression of scar formation and spinal cord regeneration, and radiation combined with microsurgery—show future promise for spinal cord injury survivors.