More than two years ago, Kelsey Harbert was swimming with some friends in Richmond, Va., when her life changed in an instant. Diving into the shallow end of the pool, she struck her head against the pool floor, fracturing the bones in her neck and damaging her spinal cord, causing paralysis from her chest down. Harbert, now 19, remembers waking up in the hospital the next day. "I could move my arms, but not my fingers and not my legs," she told Current Health.
About 12,000 people in the U.S. survive a spinal cord injury (SCI) each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. And the majority of SCIs occur in young adults between the ages of 16 and 30. Fortunately, the life-altering injuries can be prevented or managed.
The spinal cord is a tube of nerve cells that runs from the brain to the lower back. The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system, which controls most of the body's functions. Like a central circuit, the cord transmits signals between the brain and the nerves elsewhere in your body, allowing you to sense your surroundings and move your muscles.
The central nervous system plays a crucial role in almost everything you do, and damage to it can affect your ability to feel, move, or even breathe. The spinal cord is a delicate structure, says Dr. Alan Faden, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "It's very easy to damage."
Luckily, your body has some built-in protections. The spinal cord is encased in a tough membrane and bathed in shock-absorbing spinal fluid. The vertebrae, or backbones, further shield it from harm. Still, says Faden, "there are many different ways to damage the spinal cord." If a vertebra is broken, splinters of bone might pierce the cord. But the bones don't even have to be broken to cause a spinal cord injury; often, SCIs happen when vertebrae get knocked out of alignment. The dislocated bones can pinch the cord and damage the nerve cells.
When the spinal cord is damaged, it can no longer properly transmit messages between the brain and the body. Damage to the lower part of the spinal cord may block messages between the brain and the nerves of the lower body, causing paralysis in the legs, but not the arms. Injuries higher up on the cord block more of the brain's signals and can cause paralysis in all four limbs. In some cases, injuries near the top of the cord can interfere with a person's ability to breathe. Harbert's injury damaged the spinal cord at her neck, causing paralysis in her hands and legs.
An injury to the spinal cord sets off a cascade of events that can make the initial damage even worse. Blood flow to the spinal cord decreases, tissues swell, and the body produces chemicals that cause nerve cells to die. When that happens, the body cannot grow new nerve cells, Faden says. For that reason, paralysis from an SCI is often permanent.
Still, many patients do recover some of the functions they lost. Often, Faden says, unaffected parts of the spinal cord learn to take over for the regions that were damaged. That is known as plasticity. Patients often begin rehabilitation and physical therapy soon after their injuries have healed. Some rehabilitation exercises actually trigger the release of chemicals that encourage plasticity of the spinal cord, according to Faden.
A month after her accident, Harbert began rehab at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Gradually, she grew stronger and regained many of the functions she'd lost. As early as three months after her accident, Harbert began walking. Now she can walk with forearm crutches and is able to move her hands. "I walk slowly, and my hands aren't normal, but I can do everything I want to do," Harbert says. She still exercises regularly by walking on a treadmill, swimming laps in a pool, and working out in a gym. By doing that, Harbert hopes her walking will become even steadier as time goes on.
Harbert was lucky. Not everyone with spinal cord damage recovers so well. Many never regain the ability to walk. In the past, people with paralysis from SCIs often died younger than their peers. (The reasons for this aren't entirely clear, although patients in wheelchairs are more likely to suffer from such conditions as infections of the skin and lungs.) But medical professionals continue to learn better ways of caring for patients with SCIs, so that today life expectancy for individuals who are paralyzed is almost the same as it is for other people, Faden says. Researchers are also testing new drugs to treat SCIs. Faden hopes to prevent the damaging cascade of events that makes the injuries so devastating.
In the meantime, prevention is still the best medicine. Among kids and teens, more than half of SCIs are caused by car crashes, according to a study by New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. In most of those cases, the victims weren't wearing seat belts. Violence is another major cause of spinal cord injury, and drugs and alcohol are often involved in situations that lead to SCIs. To protect your spinal cord, Faden says, start by avoiding risky situations. "Dive into pools feet first. Be careful if you're playing contact sports. Don't drink and drive, and wear a seat belt under all conditions," he advises. After all, preventing spinal cord injuries is easier than dealing with them.
Survivors of spinal cord injuries (SCIs) often experience anger and sadness as they learn to cope with the limitations of their conditions. It may take a while to adjust, and victims often benefit by talking to counselors about their feelings. Focusing on the future by setting goals can be a good strategy.
For Kelsey Harbert, 19, who was injured when she dove into a pool, continuing her education was important because she wants to become an elementary school teacher. After finishing some high school classes while undergoing therapy, she returned to school determined to graduate on time--which she did. Harbert felt confident about going away to college, and that's where she is this fall, working on achieving her long-term goals. As she learned, life is full of challenges that can make people stronger.
Power Cord (p. 8)
* Have the class brainstorm what they know about the spine, its function. and how it can be damaged.
* What is the prime reason for paralysis related to car crashes? (not wearing a seat belt)
* What happens in a spinal cord injury (SCI)? (Blood flow to the area slows. tissues swell, and the body makes chemicals that kill nerve cells.)
* If you suffered an SCI would you want an experimental treatment such as cola therapy? Why or why not? (Answers will vary.)
* girlshealth.gov www.girlshealth.gov/disability/ spinal/index.Mm
* Easy for You to Say: Q&As for Teens Living With Chronic Illness or Disablility, by Miriam Kaufman (Firefly Books. 2005)
Weir, Kirsten. "Power cord: the spinal cord is your body's circuit city. Protect it." Current Health 2, a Weekly Reader publication Nov. 2008: 8+. Academic OneFile. Web. 10 Dec. 2009.
Gale Document Number:A188422148
Disclaimer:This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care
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