Surgeons at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have restored some hand function in a quadriplegic patient with a spinal cord injury at the C7 vertebra, the lowest bone in the neck. Instead of operating on the spine itself, the surgeons rerouted working nerves in the upper arms. These nerves still "talk" to the brain because they attach to the spine above the injury.
Following the surgery, performed at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and one year of intensive physical therapy, the patient regained some hand function, specifically the ability to bend the thumb and index finger. He can now feed himself bite-size pieces of food and write with assistance.
The case study, published online May 15 in the Journal of Neurosurgery, is, to the authors' knowledge, the first reported case of restoring the ability to flex the thumb and index finger after a spinal cord injury.
"This procedure is unusual for treating quadriplegia because we do not attempt to go back into the spinal cord where the injury is," says surgeon Ida K. Fox, MD, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Washington University, who treats patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "Instead, we go out to where we know things work -- in this case the elbow -- so that we can borrow nerves there and reroute them to give hand function."
Although patients with spinal cord injuries at the C6 and C7 vertebra have no hand function, they do have shoulder, elbow and some wrist function because the associated nerves attach to the spinal cord above the injury and connect to the brain. Since the surgeon must tap into these working nerves, the technique will not benefit patients who have lost all arm function due to higher injuries -- in vertebrae C1 through C5.
The surgery was developed and performed by the study's senior author Susan E. Mackinnon, MD, chief of the Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine. Specializing in injuries to peripheral nerves, she has pioneered similar surgeries to return function to injured arms and legs.
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