Is there a cure for spinal cord injuries?

human spineCurrently, there is no cure for spinal cord injuries. There are researchers attacking this problem, and there have been many advances in the lab. Many of the most exciting advances have resulted in a decrease in damage at the time of the injury.

When a spinal cord injury occurs, it usually causes swelling of the spinal cord. This may cause changes in virtually every system in the body. After days or weeks, the swelling begins to go down and people may regain some functioning. Steroid drugs such as methylprednisolone reduce swelling, which is a common cause of secondary damage at the time of injury. The experimental drug Sygen appears to reduce loss of function, although the mechanism is not completely understood.

With many injuries, especially incomplete injuries, the individual may recover some functioning as late as 18 months after the injury. In very rare cases, people with spinal cord injuries will regain some functioning years after the injury. However, only a very small fraction of individuals who sustain spinal cord injuries recover all functioning with no residual symptoms. 

Does everyone with a spinal cord injury need a wheelchair?

Some, but not all, people who sustain spinal cord injuries may require a wheelchair. Wheelchairs are a tool for mobility. High C-level injuries (cervial spine injuries, sometimes called injuries to the neck) usually require that the individual use a power wheelchair. Low C-level injuries and below usually allow the person to use a manual chair. Advantages of manual chairs are that they cost less, weigh less, disassemble into smaller pieces and are more agile. However, for the person who needs a powerchair, the independence afforded by them is worth the limitations. Some people are able to use braces and crutches for ambulation. These methods of mobility do not mean that the person will never use a wheelchair. Many people who use braces still find wheelchairs more useful for longer distances. However, the therapeutic and activity levels allowed by standing or walking briefly may make braces a reasonable alternative for some people.

Of course, people who use wheelchairs aren't always in them. They drive, swim, fly planes, ski, and do many activities out of their chair. If you hang around people who use wheelchairs long enough, you may see them sitting in the grass pulling weeds, sitting on your couch, or playing on the floor with children or pets. And of course, people who use wheelchairs don't sleep in them, they sleep in a bed. No one is "wheelchair bound."