At least 5.6 million Americans suffer from paralysis, a condition that’s 40 percent more common than previously thought, according to a new study from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
Discussing the new research, for which the Foundation teamed up with 14 universities and reps from the CDC, Alexandra Reeve Givens, Reeve’s daughter, urged the nation in an interview on “Good Morning America” to invest in paralysis research.
“It really hit home for us that we need to do a better job,” said Givens. “We need to make an investment for the entire country, to help people get back into the work force, to educate employers, too, because something of a stigma is still there.”
The new study more broadly defined the term paralysis to include not just people who cannot move at all but those who have difficulty moving.
Dr. James Harrop, neurosurgeon and co-associate director for acute care at the Regional Spinal Cord Injury Center of the Delaware Valley at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, called the study “a big deal, because it is the first time that you have someone globally looking at the problem and changing society’s perception of paralysis. It’s really a public health problem.”
Though the incidence of paralysis from spinal cord injury has decreased due to safety measures such as seatbelt use and better football helmets, it’s on the increase in the elderly, Harrop says.
“You think of the spinal cord victim as a 20-year-old that got in a motorcycle accident but in reality, it’s the 70-year old who fell down the stairs and broke his neck,” Harrop says. “Among young people, football players and gymnasts have the greatest risk of becoming paralyzed.”
Stroke is the largest cause of paralysis, Harrop says, responsible for 29 percent of all cases. Spinal cord injuries account for about 23 percent, and other causes of paralysis include ALS.
Overall, the number of people with spinal cord injuries resulting in paralysis is six times greater than was previously thought, says Dr. Steve Williams, chairman of the department of rehabilitation at Boston University School of Medicine, who was on the initial task force for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation Study.
“We had thought that there were about 250,000 people paralyzed due to spinal cord injury but after the survey, we realized that there are 1.3 million cases,” he says. “The data from this new study gives us good information not just about the person who is paralyzed but those who care for these people. It’s a very expensive disease, and the cost to society is enormous.”
Williams called for better education and research to help victims of paralysis. Those who suffer from paralysis can expect to have a nearly normal life expectancy, says Harrop. “A paraplegic has an almost normal life expectancy at this point,” he says. “We have come very far.”
One company recently received FDA approval to research stem cell transplants as a treatment for spinal cord injury, Harrop says, and this research is expected to get underway in the next couple of months.
Dr. Richard Blanck, an attending neurologist at St. Francis Hospital, feels it is crucial to develop more devices to help paralysis victims become mobile.
“Think of the brain as the computer and the spinal cord as the cable,” he says. “If you can’t repair the computer or the cable, than you are really stuck with devices to help people walk better. There is a great need for help in the area of assistive devices.”
In March, President Obama signed into law the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Act, intended to provide care for those with paralysis and other disabilities, according to the Associated Press.
Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in 1995 after a horseback riding injury, and after years of tirelessly advocating for embryonic stem cell research, he died of heart failure in 2004.