Spinal cord injury | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - December 2002

Spinal cord injury

Maureen Coggrave is a registered nurse who has specialised in spinal cord injuries for many years. She decided to do an MSc in research techniques, focusing on aspects of bowel management for people who have had spinal cord injuries.

Her RTF will develop the themes of her MSc, and will have three distinct stages:

  • ascertaining how patients feel about this aspect of their injury. There is little research on the patient’s perspective, or on how they cope with their incontinence
  • measuring patients’ satisfaction with their bowel management
  • evaluating current methods for managing bowel incontinence, and testing a new protocol for coping better with this problem that has such an impact on quality of life.

Each year 700 people suffer a spinal cord injury in the UK, joining 40,000 others who already have this disability. For many of these people, losing control of bowel function causes major problems in returning to an active life in the community.

Maureen told us: “The aim is to improve the way people manage this aspect of their care. Even when bowel incontinence is managed well it can take up several hours a day. Faecal incontinence or even the fear of incontinence is extremely socially isolating.

Increased reliability

“We want to increase reliability so that people get fewer ‘shocks’. We can do this by identifying the best management techniques, and then improve on them until we have the most efficient systems possible available to people.” Maureen’s findings could also be of benefit to Multiple Sclerosis patients and other people who suffer from bowel incontinence.

With the future of medical research very much in mind as Action Medical Research marks its 50th Anniversary, we met Maureen at the Bodyworlds exhibition in London’s Brick Lane. As the general public gets better at understanding how the human body works, and high-profile breakthroughs like the human genome project impact upon our consciousness, will the medical establishment be able to satisfy our increasing expectations?

AR: What single breakthrough would you most like to see occur in the next 50 years? MC: For me, the biggie would have to be a discovery that enabled the re-growth of damaged spinal cord. Laboratory research is going on now to investigate the effect of growth factors and inhibitors on the damaged cord. Transplantation of cells into the damaged area is being tried. Drugs are also being developed that might enable remaining nerves to work better. How amazing it would be if people who suffered spinal cord injury didn’t have to be paralysed for the rest of their lives. Action Medical Research is also funding studies in this area.

AR: Generally, what trends do you see developing? MC: I think people will live longer, though not just because of advances in medical science. Environmental and general health factors, like improved diet, fitness levels, comfortable housing and so on will increase lifespan. At least in the West. But with that increased longevity, people will want to be fitter and active for longer, which underlines the importance of medical research. Also it throws up lots of interesting questions — like if we’re going to be living longer and healthier lives, how will we support ourselves? Just because we can live longer it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to work longer!

AR: And for medical research itself? MC: I think ‘client-led’ research, where patients are more involved in setting the agenda and parameters for medical research, will become more common. Medical research is about building knowledge. Each new thing we find out adds another brick to the wall, which will cumulatively go on to make a difference to people’s lives. When you’ve tackled one problem, there will always be another. Charities like Action Medical Research will be essential in the foreseeable.

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