Spinal Cord Injury

  • Medical Author:
    Jason C. Eck, DO, MS

    Dr. Eck received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Catholic University of America in Biomedical Engineering, followed by a Master of Science degree in Biomedical Engineering from Marquette University. Following this he worked as a research engineer conducting spine biomechanics research. He then attended medical school at University of Health Sciences. He is board eligible in orthopaedic surgery.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

NIH spinal cord injury: treatments and rehabilitation

A Short History of the Treatment of Spinal Cord Injury

Accounts of spinal cord injuries and their treatment date back to ancient times, even though there was little chance of recovery from such a devastating injury. The earliest is found in an Egyptian papyrus roll manuscript written in approximately 1700 B.C. that describes two spinal cord injuries involving fracture or dislocation of the neck vertebrae accompanied by paralysis.* The description of each was "an ailment not to be treated."

Centuries later in Greece, treatment for spinal cord injuries had changed little. According to the Greek physician Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) there were no treatment options for spinal cord injuries that resulted in paralysis; unfortunately, those patients were destined to die. But Hippocrates did use rudimentary forms of traction to treat spinal fractures without paralysis. The Hippocratic Ladder was a device that required the patient to be bound, tied to the rungs upside-down, and shaken vigorously to reduce spinal curvature. Another invention, the Hippocratic Board, allowed the doctor to apply traction to the immobilized patient's back using either his hands and feet or a wheel and axle arrangement.

Hindu, Arab, and Chinese physicians also developed basic forms of traction to correct spinal deformities. These same principles of traction are still applied today.

In about 200 A.D., the Roman physician Galen introduced the concept of the central nervous system when he proposed that the spinal cord was an extension of the brain that carried sensation to the limbs and back. By the seventh century A.D., Paulus of Aegina was recommending surgery for spinal column fracture to remove the bone fragments that he was convinced caused paralysis.

In his influential anatomy textbook published in 1543, the Renaissance physician and teacher Vesalius described and illustrated the spinal cord in all its parts. The illustrations in his books, based on direct observation and dissection of the spine, gave physicians a way to understand the basic structure of the spine and spinal cord and what could happen when it was injured. The words we use today to identify segments of the spine - cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacral, and coccygeal - come directly from Vesalius.

With the widespread use of antiseptics and sterilization in surgical procedures in the late nineteenth century, spinal surgery could finally be done with a much lower risk of infection. The use of X-rays, beginning in the 1920s, gave surgeons a way to precisely locate the injury and also made diagnosis and prediction of outcome more accurate. By the middle of the twentieth century, a standard method of treating spinal cord injuries was established - reposition the spine, fix it in place, and rehabilitate disabilities with exercise. In the 1990s, the discovery that the steroid drug methylprednisolone could reduce damage to nerve cells if given early enough after injury gave doctors an additional treatment option.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/8/2016
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