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January 08. 2014 8:32PM

Medical expert: Recovery posssible after broken neck

Complete paralysis from a broken neck is rarely permanent, and a person with a broken neck can recover from paralysis, as long as the actual spinal-cord nerve is not severed, according to a Tufts Medical Center expert.

Swelling, bruising and bleeding in the area of the spinal cord can cause paralysis, but most patients begin to recover within three to six months, said Dr. Wei-Lee Liao, a member of the Tufts Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and an expert in spinal cord injuries and paralysis.

"The spinal cord is well-protected by bone structures. It takes a lot of force to injure the spine itself if the bones are healthy," he said.

The New Hampshire Union Leader contacted Tufts with questions about spinal cord injuries in light of the broken neck and paralysis of Manchester resident Fern Ornelas last October. Liao spoke about the medicine, but not Ornelas' specific case.

Ornelas is widely reported to have suffered paralysis and a broken neck, likely sometime between a fight with security guards at Elliot Hospital and his incarceration at Valley Street jail. His injuries are under investigation by state and local officials.

A spinal cord is rarely severed, an injury that results in permanent paralysis and has little hopes for recovery, Liao said. A cord can be severed in a bad automobile accident or by a bullet or knife to the spine, he said.

In a fight or most automobile accidents, contusions and swelling are more likely. That is why first responders take care to immobilize a back when someone is involved in a serious accident, he said.

The recovery is slow, and it usually plateaus. But patients do regain some mobility and motor skills, he said.

Treatment involves physical and occupational therapy; rarely does one's entire range of fine-motor skills return, he said.

"The extent of the recovery is a little bit hard to predict," Liao said.

After spinal damage, one can walk around until swelling or bleeding eventually brings about the paralysis.

"It could take minutes to hours; rarely more than a few hours," Liao said.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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