Spinal cord injury research

Spinal Cord Injury Research: History, Progress and What Lies Ahead

We live in a time of unparalleled advances in medical research. In recent decades, we have seen major surgical procedures become normal, everyday occurrences, drugs developed that protect us from some of the worst diseases in history and therapeutic approaches that allow us to recover from serious illnesses and medical conditions.

One area where research has made a huge difference is in the treatment, management and recovery of spinal cord injuries. There’s no doubt that spinal cord injury treatment options have advanced significantly over the years and this would not have been possible without continued medical research.

Here we take a closer look at the history of spinal cord research, the progress that has been made and also what the future holds.

Brief History of Spinal Cord Injury Research

With the exception of the last four or five decades, spinal cord injuries (SCI) have typically been viewed as a condition for which recovery is impossible.

Back in Ancient Egyptian times it’s believed that traction techniques may have been used to try and treat spinal injuries. A process called laminectomy, which involved removing vertebrae, may have also been primitively developed at this time.

This practice was seen right up to the 18th century in England, though not everyone shared enthusiasm for it as a ‘cure’. Charles Bell was one of the first to say that surgery was not a useful treatment in spinal fractures.

In the 19th century, the first book outlining the treatment of spinal injury patients was written by Paul Stolper and it included ideas on many challenges we see today such as methods of reducing pressure sores.

World War One cannon
A lot of progress was made in the field of spinal cord injury treatment following the First World War

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the first spinal cord injury wards were created by Wilhelm Wagner in Germany to help miners who had sustained injuries from collapsing tunnels.

Following his death, Wagner’s knowledge of spinal cord injury recovery continued to be widely referred to during the First World War, where there was, of course, a significant number of spinal cord injury casualties to deal with.

Like so many wars before and since, this terrible time in human history was also a catalyst for research and improvements in understanding and knowledge.

The 1990s were perhaps the first time when research in spinal injury treatment and management really began to make a move towards the modern approach we see today.

  • Our understanding of how a spinal injury works as a ‘cascade’ of damage improved. Starting with the initial injury to the spine, researchers saw inflammation and subsequent cell damage followed by chemical imbalances in the area where the lesion occurred.
  • Scientists also looked at ways to promote axon growth in the 1990s, using substances that they hoped would stimulate nerve recovery. This is research that continues today.
  • They also noticed that some regrowth treatments that were used also had a positive effect on healthy surrounding neurons, helping them to grow.

Progress Made in Spinal Cord Injury Research

Since the 1990s, our understanding has further improved. The ‘cascade of damage’ has widened to include how our immune response is affected following a spinal cord injury and also how blood pressure is impacted. During this time there have been a range of studies looking at minimizing nerve damage in the early stages of recovery following a spinal cord injury.

The idea of nerve regrowth is now a better-understood phenomena and a number of growth enabling molecules have been identified. There may also be a genetic component that could eventually be used to reboot or restore axon growth in human beings.

Researchers are looking at how still healthy nerves can be enhanced to provide compensation for areas that have been damaged.

Epidural stimulation is one of the more significant breakthroughs in recent times for the treatment of spinal cord injury patients. This procedure uses an electronic device implanted in the spine to relay messages to the nerves where damage has occurred.

The implant essentially bypasses the injury and can transmit messages for individuals to get up, sit, move and function where before they would have been unable to.

There are numerous success stories involving individuals who have already received this type of treatment.

What the Future Holds for Spinal Cord Injury Research

More advances have been made in the field of spinal cord injury research in the last few years than there has been at any time in human civilization.

There is a lot to get excited about when it comes to spinal cord injury research. History may have taken its time reaching this point but we are now in a golden age in terms of our understanding of SCIs.

On going research continues to enhance the potential to improve people’s lives and maybe even the discovery of a definitive cure one day in the future will soon become a possibility.