Reducing Pain After Spinal Cord Injuries

Spinal cord injuries are often debilitating. Those who experience severe spinal cord injuries often end up paralyzed, sometimes from the neck down, and the way they must live their lives becomes drastically different. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 250,000 and 500,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries each year. WHO also states that around 25 million people worldwide are currently living with a spinal cord injury, which leads to high medical costs, a generally lower level quality of life, and oftentimes, intense pain.

Why is there pain?

The people who are paralyzed lack the use of some or all of their limbs, and it’s common that paraplegics are forced to suffer intense pain from their affected limbs. Jon Forbes is one such person who suffers from this condition. He became paralyzed and lost the use of his legs, which left him wheelchair-bound, but he says being paralyzed isn’t the worse part. The aspect of his condition that led him to consider ending his life were the excruciating electric shocks that would course through his body from areas below his spinal cord injury. Forbes says the pain was constant and unbearable. This side effect of a spinal cord injury is known as neuropathic pain.

How can it be cured?

Forbes tried everything available to stop the pain, such as various drugs, exercise, and other methods, but nothing helped. Various doctors tried to help Forbes, but could not do it, which led to some of them claiming the pain was all in his head, since he no longer has sensation in his legs, he shouldn’t be feeling the pain. Forbes eventually quit his job and considered ending his life, but then he found out about Dr. Scott Falci.

Dr. Scott Falci works as the chief neurosurgical adviser at Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. He uses spinal operations to stop or lessen neuropathic pain from spinal cord injuries. Dr. Falci works to fix neuropathic pain with surgery that takes hours.

The first step is to spend a few hours merely working to expose the spinal cord. Once Dr. Falci and his team accomplish that, he begins to take a closer look at his patient’s spinal cord. He looks for “root entry zones,” which are located all along the spinal cord. These zones contain thousands of cells and are responsible for nerve sensations coming throughout the body and being sent to the spinal cord.

 
Most of these nerve cells produce a calm electric signal, but when Dr. Falci finds a hyperactive nerve cluster, he knows he’s located the problem. These hyperactive clusters are firing high energy, but shouldn’t be firing at all, due to the spinal cord injury. Dr. Falci uses heat to kill these nerve spots, preventing them from sending more painful signals. Jon Forbes had the surgery performed two years ago, now he holds a steady job again and suffers significantly less pain. For him, this surgery was life-changing.

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