Christopher Reeve & Spinal Cord InjuryBarbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.
October 11, 2004 -- Christopher Reeve, the actor who showed the world the meaning of courage after a spinal cord injury, died yesterday. Mr. Reeve had cardiac arrest, and slipped into a coma. He was 52.
After his injury, Mr. Reeve became a strong advocate for the disabled and for rehabilitation therapy. With his wife Dana, he opened the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center in New Jersey. The Center is devoted to teaching paralyzed people to live more independently.
Mr. Reeve supported stem cell research and helped it emerge as a major campaign issue between President Bush and Senator Kerry. His name was even mentioned by Kerry earlier this month during the second presidential debate.
Reeve's death was sudden. He was being treated for an infected pressure sore, a common complication for people paralyzed by a spinal cord injury.
Spinal Cord Injury
The most common types of spinal cord injury are contusion and compression of the cord. Contusion is essentially a bruise of the spinal cord. Compression of the spinal cord is caused by pressure upon it.
Other types of spinal cord injuries include lacerations (severing or tearing of some nerve fibers, such as damage caused by a gun shot wound), and the central cord syndrome (specific damage to the corticospinal tracts of the cervical region of the spinal cord).
Severe spinal cord injuries often cause paralysis with loss of control over voluntary muscle movement and loss of sensation and reflex function below the point of the injury, including sometimes, as in Mr. Reeve's case, loss of autonomic activity such as breathing and other activities such as bowel and bladder control.
Other problems such as pain or hypersensitivity to stimuli, muscle spasms, and sexual dysfunction may develop over time. Spinal cord patients are also prone to develop secondary medical problems, such as lung infections, bladder infections, and pressure sores such as the one of Mr. Reeve's that was infected.
After a Spinal Cord Injury
Immediate treatment for acute spinal cord injuries includes techniques to relieve cord compression and prompt drug therapy with corticosteroids (cortisone-like drugs such as methylprednisolone) to minimize cell damage. Stabilization of the vertebrae of the spine may be done to prevent further injury.
The degree of disability associated with spinal cord injuries vary. It depends on the severity of the injury, the segment of the spinal cord at which the injury occurred, and which nerve fibers are damaged.
Most people with spinal cord injuries regain some functions between a week and 6 months after injury, but the likelihood of spontaneous recovery of functions diminishes after 6 months. Rehabilitation strategies are designed to help minimize long-term disability.
The Reeve Paralysis Foundation