Spinal Cord Injury Treatment: Hypothermia

Miami state champion gymnast, Jorge Valdez, was rushed to the hospital with a bilateral dislocation of two vertebrae after attempting a double flip at a gym.

Valdez was practicing for tryouts for a Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil production when he landed squarely on his head. The spinal cord injury almost led to complete motor and sensory failure, doctors said. Orginally, doctors were unsure if he would ever walk again.

Instead, he walked out of a hospital, ready to resume practice without rehabilitation.

Valdez’s rare outcome is due to hypothermic treatment, a relatively new procedure that uses cold for victims of severe trauma to reduce swelling and inflammation.

"He was the perfect storm for this type of injury to happen here," his doctor said.

"We were able to immediately take him to the operating room and get his neck decompressed and fix the dislocation. Number two, we immediately started him on a hypothermia protocol to cool his body down to 33.5 degrees Celsius."

That's 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The standard temperature of the body is 98.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

The cooling process reduces the swelling and inflammation on the spinal cord to help prevent further damage. Unlike swelling, such as a black eye, the tight quarters combined with swelling cause more damage to the spinal cord and can lead to paralysis.

"Most patients don't make a functional recovery, and he just walked out of the hospital," he said.

The surgery lasted about two hours. Valdez remained cooled for 48 hours after the injury and slowly warmed before surgery.

The chilling is not unlike cases in which people who suffer near drowning revive even after long periods of time under water. The cold slows the body's metabolism which, in turn, slows the damaging inflammatory process.

People, who suffer from heart, brain or spinal cord injuries, began using hypothermia, as recommended by the American Heart Association.

However hypothermia treatment is not a cure for everybody with a spinal injury and there are risks involved.

"If you sever or cut the spinal cord, hypothermia is not going to fix it — nothing, yet, is going to fix it. If you bruise it badly, it can help," his doctor said.

In addition, the procedure's risk factors include pneumonia and blood clots.

Valdez was a prime candidate for the hypothermia protocol because he didn't have any other injuries that would have complicated the procedure.

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