Why do spinal cord injuries fail to heal?

Pulling out of your driveway, you get hit by a drunk driver. They were speeding, at night, with their headlights off. Their BAC was well over the legal limit. You never saw them and you never had a chance.

You end up in the hospital with a spinal cord injury. It's touch and go at first. Doctors do get you stabilized, and you settle in for a long road to recovery. They warn you that you may never heal completely.

A year later, it's clear that they had a point. You have gained some abilities back, but you still have serious pain and a reduced range of motion. You start to think that it's never going to heal. Other damage has, to nearby bones and tissues, but your underlying injury fails to follow suit. Why is this?

Nerve regeneration

The problem is with nerve healing and regeneration. Even when muscle and bone heal properly, nerves resist it. The fibers do not regenerate properly, so the brain essentially remains disconnected from the body. Even if everything else appears physically fine, the brain struggles to send signals to that part of the body -- or cannot do so at all -- and that is why the injury will not heal further.

Research shows exercise may help

One interesting study found that exercise may help and an active lifestyle may increase the chances of nerve regeneration and healing. The study did involve mice, a common tactic before applying things to human studies. To promote this lifestyle, the professor who ran the study said that they:

  • Gave mice more living space with a bigger cage
  • Put more mice in the cage so they could interact with one another
  • Gave them access to running wheels, swings and tunnels
  • Gave the mice toys to play with

All of this pushed the mice toward physical activity, which they thought "primed" the cells and helped with regeneration. That, in turn, led to more complete healing. As the professor put it in Science Daily, their efforts in this regard led to "changes in gene expression which make the nerve more likely to regenerate."

Of course, one of the issues with a spinal cord injury is that it may make exercise more difficult or even impossible. However, this is something that patients and rehabilitation workers may want to consider as they seek the best ways to help nerves heal.

Your options

While these studies do appear promising, you still face a lot of challenges after the crash. A spinal cord injury can alter your life forever. You need to make sure you know what options you have.

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