Halo brace

Halo Brace After a Spinal Cord Injury: Why Are They Used?

The spinal cord and its surrounding vertebrae represent a complex and delicate structure that is an integral part of human anatomy.

To put it simply, the main function of the spinal cord is to transmit messages to and from the brain. The brain sends these signals when we stand, sit and walk. The network of nerves are also involved in a whole host of automatic processes such as breathing, moderating blood pressure and our heartbeat.

When the spinal cord is damaged, it can have a profound impact on the individual and their ability to function. Any serious spinal injury requires immediate medical intervention to ensure the best outcome.

Treatment may involve implementing a wide range of measures, including initial pain control techniques, surgery and physiotherapy during the recovery process. With damage to the spine, it’s important that the affected area is immobilized to give it time to recover and repair.

If the spinal cord injury is high up around the cervical/neck region, one of the most important pieces of medical equipment that is commonly used is a halo brace or halo vest. This is designed to make sure that the patient cannot move their neck after an accident or surgery.

What is a Halo Brace Used For?

A halo brace is a piece of equipment that is designed to:

  • Keep the patient’s head still and in the right alignment so that the injury has the best prospect of healing.
  • Ensure that the muscles around the neck are supported.

The halo brace is meant to keep the patient from being able to move their neck back and forth or from side to side. It is usually worn from between 6 and 12 weeks depending on the extent of the injury. 

What Does a Halo Brace Look Like?

At first sight, a halo vest looks like quite an unwieldy contraption. It consists of a metal ring that goes around the upper skull without touching it. At various points around this ring are holes to insert pins which are used to fasten the halo brace to the skull.

A stiff but lightweight plastic vest fits over and around the chest. Four bars run from the metal ring and attach to this vest. There’s normally a washable liner for the vest that can be removed and cleaned.

How is a Halo Brace Attached?

Photo credit: BruceBlausHalo BraceCC BY-SA 4.0

The pins are the vital part of the halo brace and these keep the contraption in place and prevent the patient from moving their neck. This can be quite uncomfortable and some patients experience pain in the area where the pins are attached to the skull.

While wearing the halo brace, the patient will pay regular visits to their physician who may need to tighten the pins and x-ray the damaged area to monitor recovery. Pain and discomfort should reduce with time.

Halo Brace Usage Guidelines

Once the halo vest has been placed on the individual, they will then return home. Using a halo brace correctly requires making some adaptations in daily living.

It’s important, for instance, to clean the pins regularly to avoid any chance of infection. This can be difficult for the individual to do so employing the help of a caregiver may be required.

Washing and cleanliness, in general, is usually a concern for those wearing a halo vest. Individuals should have only sponge baths or at best bathe in shallow water. It’s important to clean the skin under the vest to prevent sores and irritation.

The patient should avoid strenuous exercise whilst wearing the halo brace but that doesn’t mean exercise in all forms needs to be avoided. Physicians may advise to patient to try and walk a little each day. However, patients should try to move carefully to avoid the potential of tripping over.

Sleeping can be a major issue when wearing a halo brace and it can be difficult to get into a comfortable routine. The individual wearing the halo brace with generally have to sleep on their back but taking naps in a reclining chair may also help.

It can be surprisingly difficult to eat and drink or take medication when wearing a halo vest. Experts suggest using straws to drink and cutting food into small pieces or having soft food and juices.

There may be some problems which mean an individual should to seek immediate care:

  • Growing pain is experienced, or the area where the pins attach to the skull begin to look red, swollen or are bleeding.
  • If the patient falls, it’s important to have the brace checked urgently to make sure it is still fitted properly
  • The brace wearer has trouble swallowing, suffers from blurred vision or is experiencing pain or tingling, they should see their physician immediately.

Recap

A halo brace is a device for spinal injury patients who have suffered damage to the cervical area of the spine. It is designed to hold the neck still and give time for the injured area to heal and is normally worn for between six and twelve weeks.