The growing popularity of adventure sports is contributing to a rise in the number of serious spinal injuries, doctors said yesterday.
New figures show that the number of patients in England undergoing surgery after such an injury has increased by 33 per cent from 1,723 to 2,293 between 2001 and 2006.
Of those admitted to NHS hospitals for severe spinal injury last year, more than half were men aged between 17 and 40, according to statistics from Dr Foster, an independent health research company.
Dr Angela Gall, a consultant in spinal cord injury Rehabilitation at the Royal National Orthopaedic Centre in Stanmore, north-west London, said the rise had been fuelled by the increased popularity of adventure sports as well as by the ageing population.
“We are seeing more people who have been injured while taking part in winter sports such as skiing, and in other sports like trampolining and horse riding,” she said.
“But a large proportion of the people we see are older people who have fallen in their homes and need treatment.”
Some medical experts pointed to an acute shortage of beds in specialist spinal injury centres. They said that patients admitted to these centres were not operated on as frequently as those in general hospitals because the units are equipped to offer alternative treatment to surgery.
Wagih El Masry, a consultant surgeon in spinal injury at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic and District Hospital in Shropshire, blamed the increase on bed shortages.
“Since 1980 there has not been one extra bed for spinal injuries in the whole of the country,” said Mr El Masry, the president-elect of the International Spinal Cord Association.
“People with spinal injuries are being taken and operated on in district hospitals. It is very difficult to manage a patient with an unstable spinal injury associated with paralysis in a district hospital.
“However, there is no evidence to suggest that surgery is beneficial to spinal injury patients. Excellent results are obtained by bed rest for about six weeks, and close attention to every system of the body affected.”
Patients left paralysed by serious spinal injury have been given hope by Prof Geoffrey Raisman, the director of the Spinal Repair Unit at University College London.
He is developing a technique that he believes could lead to paralysed people walking again within 10 years.
The work involves taking cells from the lining of the nose and injecting them into the severed parts of the spinal cord. Research has shown that the cells create a bridge across the break, allowing the severed nerves to reconnect.
By Nicole Martin