Therapeutic hypothermia is also used to treat stroke patients and patients who have suffered cardiac arrest.
For stroke patients, it serves the same purpose as it does for spine patients -- as a neuron-protector and a block against swelling. Stroke patients most likely to benefit from hypothermia are those with moderate to severe strokes, Greer said. "It's an up-and-coming technology that has shown great promise in stroke patients," he noted.
Dr. Mary Ann Peberdy, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, said hypothermia is used for cardiac arrest patients who survive but remain in a coma.
Peberdy said cooling has several beneficial effects. It reduces metabolism. It also prevents harmful chemicals that develop in the blood after cardiac arrest from reaching the brain after blood flow has been restored -- called reperfusion injury, she said.
"Hypothermia blocks reperfusion injury," she said. "That's why it's important to start cooling as early as you possibly can."
Peberdy said that only about 5 percent of patients survive a cardiac arrest. "Of the patients who survive, a significant number have neurological damage. Using hypothermia, we have taken our neurologically intact survival from about 30 to 40 percent to about 60 to 80 percent," she said.
Greer said many patients with a spinal cord injury could benefit from hypothermia therapy. "I wouldn't say that there is a spinal cord injury that's too severe that I wouldn't want to at least try cooling early on," he said.
Greer said he expects this treatment to become more widespread. "At the same time that it's effective, it's very safe," he said. "The risks with hypothermia are very low and manageable."
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