wheelchair walking with two women
An adult's spine has four sections: cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral. Because each section protects nerves that control a different part of the body, the type of spinal cord injury depends on which section is injured. (Photo: iStock)

The nerves that run through the spinal cord exchange messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Traumatic injuries to the spinal cord can damage these nerves and cause paralysis, numbness or loss of bladder or bowel control.

A treatment called surgical decompression alleviates compressed nerves in the spinal cord and can help patients regain some sensory and motor function.

Krembil Research Institute Senior Scientist Dr. Michael Fehlings and a team of neurosurgeons, including Dr. Jetan Badhiwala, sought to find out the optimal time to perform this surgery.

"We've identified a critical window within which surgical decompression should take place," says Dr. Fehlings. "Patients who had surgical decompression within 24 hours of their injury had the greatest neurological recovery after one year.

"Furthermore, we discovered that motor recovery plateaus with surgeries performed after 36 hours."

The team analyzed data from four multicentre studies for 1,548 patients. The patients were split into two groups based on the time from injury to surgery: individuals who received surgery within 24 hours, and those who received surgery at or after 24 hours.

At one year after surgery, those who received surgery within 24 hours showed greater improvement in all motor scores tested. Moreover, even within 24 hours, the earlier patients received surgery, the better their recovery.

Using the data, the team also discovered that at 36 hours after the injury there was a plateau in recovery. This suggests that at this point the nerves and tissue become irreversibly damaged and surgery is no longer beneficial.

"This study demonstrates that 'time is spine' – timely surgical decompression, specifically within 24 hours, can provide patients the greatest chance for recovery," says Dr. Fehlings.

Fehlings and Badhiwala
Senior author of both studies Dr. Michael Fehlings (L) and author Dr. Jetan Badhiwala. (Photos: UHN)

In a separate clinical trial, Dr. Fehlings and his team, including Dr. Badhiwala, assessed whether the drug riluzole could help enhance sensorimotor recovery if taken prior to surgical decompression. While the drug did not improve motor recovery, researchers found evidence that it might reduce neck pain after decompression in patients with degenerative cervical myelopathy, or compression of the spinal cord.

"We hope that our findings help inform existing clinical guidelines for the treatment of spinal cord injuries, and put in motion more research into therapeutic strategies that can be rapidly deployed after injury to help improve the recovery of patients with spinal cord injuries," Dr. Fehlings says.

Supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.

Sponsored by AOSpine North America, and the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation.

This surgical decompression research also benefits from the support of the DeGasperis Family Foundation. Dr. Fehlings holds the Gerald and Tootsie Halbert Chair in Neural repair and Regeneration.

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