Every year, an estimated 11,000 SCIs occur in the U.S. Most of these are caused by trauma to the vertebral column, thereby affecting the spinal cord’s ability to send and receive messages from the brain to the body’s systems that control sensory, motor and autonomic function below the level of injury.
According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), SCI costs the nation an estimated $9.7 billion each year. Pressure sores alone, a common secondary condition among people with SCI, cost an estimated $1.2 billion.
Treatment of SCI begins before the patient is admitted to the hospital. Paramedics or other emergency medical services personnel carefully immobilize the entire spine at the scene of the accident. In the emergency department, this immobilization is continued while more immediate life-threatening problems are identified and addressed. If the patient must undergo emergency surgery because of trauma to the abdomen, chest or another area, immobilization and alignment of the spine are maintained during the operation.
Intensive Care Unit Treatment
If a patient has a SCI, he or she will usually be admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU). For many injuries of the cervical spine, traction may be indicated to help bring the spine into proper alignment. Standard ICU care, including maintaining a stable blood pressure, monitoring cardiovascular function, ensuring adequate ventilation and lung function and preventing and promptly treating infection and other complications, is essential so that SCI patients can achieve the best possible outcome.
Occasionally, a surgeon may wish to take a patient to the operating room immediately if the spinal cord appears to be compressed by a herniated disc, blood clot or other lesion. This is most commonly done for patients with an incomplete SCI or with progressive neurological deterioration.
Even if surgery cannot reverse damage to the spinal cord, surgery may be needed to stabilize the spine to prevent future pain or deformity. The surgeon will decide which procedure will provide the greatest benefit to the patient.