Christopher Reeve & Spinal Cord Injury

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Medical Authors and Editors: Barbara 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.

Mr. Reeve broke his neck on May 27, 1995 when he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian competition in Virginia. He was left quadriplegic.

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

Spinal cord injuries, such as the one Mr. Reeve suffered, are due to trauma. The trauma may act in one of two ways to injure the spinal cord. It may directly damage cells within the spinal cord. Or the injury may sever the nerve tracts that relay signals up and down the spinal cord.

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

Advances in emergency care and rehabilitation now permit many more people with spinal cord injuries to survive. However, ways to reduce the extent of the injury and for restoring function are still limited.

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

Mr. Reeve founded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, The Foundation is committed to funding research that develops treatments and cures for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and other central nervous system disorders. The Foundation also vigorously works to improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities through its grants program, paralysis resource center and advocacy efforts.

In just a few years' time, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation has given $22 million in research grants to some of the world's best neuroscientists. These grants are catalytic.

"We support new initiatives, take smart risks, and make sure our research dollars are spent to do the most good. And the research we're funding has the potential to cure not only paralysis, but other devastating diseases, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer' s, cancer, juvenile diabetes, ALS and heart disease."

In addition, through its Quality of Life Grants program, the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation has awarded more than $1 million in grants to organizations that help people with disabilities live more independently and in a manner that is dictated by their abilities, not their disability.


We at MedicineNet mourn the passing of Christopher Reeve and express our condolences to his family and friends. He was a superman on the screen and in life.

Related Topics

  • Cardiac Arrest (medical dictionary entry)
  • Diaphragm Pacing & Christopher Reeve (Doctor's View)
  • Christopher Reeve: One Finger at a Time (Interview with Psychology Today, 2003)


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