World-first trial gives spinal cord hope

Australian trial will ‘freeze’ injury to prevent any further damage

 Regaining arm and leg movement for spinal cord injury victims by buying them more time before surgery is the aim of an Australian trial.

As reported on, just as care for heart attack victims has been transformed by special treatment at the scene, paramedics in Victoria, Australia, will cool the bodies of spinal cord patients by two degrees within two hours of the trauma.
This will effectively ‘freeze’ the injury and prevent further damage before spinal decompression surgery can occur, as long as 18 hours after injury.

Lead researcher, neurologist Dr Peter Bachelor, said there was no immediate or standard treatment for spinal cord injuries, which usually resulted in paralysis and loss of independence.

In spinal cord injuries, there is the initial injury of fracturing or dislocating vertebrae and a secondary trauma when this causes the swollen spinal cord to be squashed.
“The spinal cord, like any tissue in the body, immediately swells when injured, and compression at the site of injury reduced the spinal cord’s diameter by about half,” Dr Bachelor said.

“Hypothermia can reduce swelling. By reducing pressure on the spinal cord it buys patients a bit of time so they’re in better shape for surgery.”

Studies show animals that received cooling before decompression went on to walk again.

“The animals are in the same state at eight hours with hypothermia as they would be at two hours,”

Dr Bachelor said. “It appears to be a therapy that buys you quite a lot of time.”
The study will involve 140 patients with neck injuries throughout Australia over the next five years, with half receiving cooling in addition to decompression surgery.
Dr Bachelor said even small improvements in movement would greatly improve the lives of spinal cord patients.

“For people with quadriplegia, if only they could move their arms enough to bring a spoon to their mouth to feed themselves,” he said. “We might not hit a home run and get everyone mobile and walking, but even small improvements would have enormous consequences to quality of life.”

The trial received start-up funding from the Spinal Cord Injury Network, and a grant of $580,000 (Aus) from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

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