Of all the injuries that funnel through the trauma center, some of the most devastating involve the spinal cord.
“The problem with spinal cord is you have a very densely packed structure, about a centimeter in diameter, where a lot of nerves travel. Anything that damages that amount of tissue can result in a catastrophic injury,” says Dr. Dean Lin, neurosurgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.
Nationwide, and at Lee Memorial Hospital’s level II trauma center, the top cause of spinal cord injury is from car crashes, often the result of being ejected or thrown from a vehicle. Next are falls, which include dive accidents.
“Summertime is coming up and people are going to want to get back in their pools. And there’s always a possibility of hitting your head when you dive. And unfortunately we see those injuries,” says Dr. Robert O’Connor, trauma surgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.
“Oh yes very frequently. Some teenager who dove into a pool, it’s too shallow, he’s got a cervical spinal cord injury. It’s very common,” says Dr. Lin.
Several factors influence the outcome. Generally, the higher up towards the neck or cervical spine- the higher the potential for serious injury or paralysis. The most telling aspect hinges on the amount of impact to the spinal cord.
“We’re talking about two separate entities. Penetrating where the cord is transected versus a blunt injury where it’s bruised if you will. The first 72-96 hours we look for any type of improvement,” says Dr. O’Connor.
Neurosurgeons may operate to stabilize the spine, to alleviate the pressure and swelling.
“That involves # 1: decompressing the spinal cord and # 2: putting in instrumentation - rods and screws really to hold the spine in position. As long as the spinal cord is being compressed, it’s not going to be able to heal like it should,” says Dr. Lin.
Spine trauma patients spend on average 11 days in the hospital followed by 37 days in a rehab unit. Many will people never fully recover.
“It’s a very sad and devastating injury when it happens,” says Dr. O’Connor.