Containing approximately 120 muscles, 220 ligaments and 120 joints, the spine is a complex system. This complexity often makes spinal cord injury a life threatening one, but perhaps it can soon become treatable.

On the heels of the opening of the Ohio State Brain and Spine Hospital, the Wexner Medical Center at OSU received a five-year, $2.2 million grant to implement the Ohio Regional Spinal Cord Injury Model System.

Awarded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research, the program collects information on spinal cord injury patients from the moment they are injured, to rehabilitation and for the rest of their life.

Although a challenge in treating spinal cord injury patients lies in the patients’ resulting long-term complications, the grant will be able to make life better for patients, said Dr. David Evans, a trauma surgeon and medical director of OSU’s trauma center.

“Over the next five years I anticipate we’re going to see outcomes improve, functional outcomes improve so that patients are able to regain more function after they suffer a spinal cord injury,” Evans said.

The project’s focus is to identify those at risk for immune deficiency earlier and treat potential infections preventively. From there, the goal is to reduce complication rates that lead to higher disability in patients, said Dr. Jan Schwab, neurologist and leader of the project.

“This would mean that we will be able to treat spinal cord injury patients the first time … which then consequently results in a better outcome,” Schwab said. “This would mean a spinal cord injury would become a treatable disease.”

Spinal cord injuries can not only cause physical paralysis, but can frequently shut down the immune system and lead to dangerous infections.

“These are not just infections, these are the main killers of patients with spinal injury, and are also associated with slower recovery rate,” said Dr. Jan Schwab, neurologist and leader of the project. “They really impinge on people’s lives.”

The grant and the model system will also help reduce infections such as bedsores, urinary tract infection and bowel and bladder problems, Evans said.

The model system will allow access to the most recent findings, collaborate with other researchers and expand OSU’s own research projects.

On the rehabilitation side, Dr. Jennifer Bogner, co-principal investigator and director of rehabilitation psychology, said the program has developed several different tools for clinicians and patients who suffered a spinal cord injury to help with gain the most out of their recovery process.

“For example, they developed tools to help with pain, bowel management, wheelchair fitting, exercise,” Bogner said. “These are areas where clinical tools have been developed based on research that was conducted by the spinal cord injury model system.”

Dr. Kristen Jackson, the project community services director, said that there many opportunities for patients with spinal cord injury to reintegrate into a community, but not many patients know about them while they go through the rehab system.

“That’s the number one question when people first get hurt, ‘How am I going to live my life on a daily basis? But how am I going to do those things that are fun and meaningful for my life and are those still going to be a part of my life?’,” Jackson said. “One of of our major interventions is to just get them information that, yes that is going to be a part of your life and these are the organizations that can show you how.”

Though there is a long road ahead, researchers like Schwab work hard for patients with spinal cord injury.
I’m getting up every morning, and I feel that the spinal cord injury population is underserved, in terms of interventional trials, compared to other neurological diseases. We need to do much better for this population,” Schwab said.