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VA seeks quality of life for those with spinal cord injury

More than 240,000 Americans, including 44,000 veterans, currently suffer from a spinal cord injury (SCI). Eleven thousand more sustain these injuries every year. The Department of Veterans Affairs promotes National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month as a means to educate the public, aid those living with SCI, and support medical research in the SCI field.

VA has the single largest network of spinal cord injury care in the nation, with 23 specialized SCI centers and 135 SCI primary care teams or SCI support clinics at non-SCI VA medical centers. All centers offer a full continuum of care, and some have a long-term care component for those patients unable to live in the community. The primary care teams and clinics provide primary care, basic specialty care, and consultative services to veterans within their local VA facility. More complex care needs are referred to the closest SCI center. VA provides both preventive and specialty medical services to improve the length and quality of life, promote healthy aging and address the chronic impairments associated with spinal cord injuries.

A healthy spinal cord transmits information between the brain and the nerves that lead to muscle, skin, internal organs and glands. Injury or disease to the spinal cord disrupts this pathway, inhibiting movement, sensation and function of the body and resulting in paraplegia or quadriplegia. Paraplegia occurs from injury to the lower part of the spinal cord and causes paralysis of the lower part of the body. Quadriplegia (also referred to as tetraplegia) results from injury to the upper part of the spinal cord, in the neck area, which causes paralysis to the upper and lower body and arms.

Spinal cord injuries can cause other medical conditions such as autonomic dysreflexia (a life-threatening form of high blood pressure without immediate treatment that is unique to persons with SCI), respiratory illness, sleep apnea, loss of skin integrity, inability to regulate body temperature, chronic pain, and impaired use of bowel and bladder muscles.

Spinal cord injury may also increase a person's risk factors for osteoporosis (bone loss), obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes because of the difficulty in exercising. VA promotes camaraderie and activeness by sponsoring the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic annually since staying active is extremely important to the physical and emotional well-being of SCI patients. Visit www1.va.gov/opa/speceven/index.htm for details about these events.

VA also promotes research that focuses on respiratory, metabolic and cardiovascular impairments, pressure ulcers and chronic pain. These are the most common causes of morbidity, mortality and hospitalizations in the SCI population.

In fiscal 2004, VA funded 103 spinal cord injury research projects, totaling nearly $18.9 million, and VA investigators participated in 128 non-VA funded spinal cord injury research projects. VA founded the Consortium for Spinal Cord Medicine, incorporating the resources and research of 20 professional organizations in the country to share findings with clinicians nationwide. The goal is to directly benefit the clinical care and quality of life for those living with spinal cord injuries.

VA researchers helped develop a hand-grasp system that stimulates the forearm muscles that close and open fingers, offering patients better control. This innovative technique implants electrodes under the skin, sending impulses to muscles through peripheral nerves, which can move muscles in arms and legs paralyzed by spinal cord injury. Using an outside control box, this electrical stimulation enables people to flex their hands, stand and sometimes walk to a limited degree.

In addition, VA researchers are studying the transplantation of cells. Cells that conduct nerve impulses from the peripheral nerves in one part of the body may be transferable to the patient's central nervous system in order to restore nerve function in the brain and spinal cord.

For more information about VA care for those with SCI, call the VA Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders Strategic Healthcare Group at (206) 768-5401

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