What doctors have learned is that it's critical to immobilize the neck and reduce inflammation after an accident. The spinal cord -- a band of soft tissue running down the back, from the brain to above the buttocks, and about as thick as a thumb -- houses a network of nerve fibers that relays messages to and from the brain and peripheral structures. Protecting the cord are bones called vertebrae. A spinal cord injury occurs when these bones shift and crush the cord, damaging nerve fibers, or fracture and pierce the cord like shrapnel. The higher the injury (closer to the head), the more likely there may be loss of function. Immobilizing the neck at least ensures that an injury in that region -- which could result in quadriplegia -- won't get worse.
Once the neck is stabilized, the next step is to reduce inflammation. While inflammation is a normal part of the healing of tissues, unfortunately when it comes to the spinal cord, swelling does more initial damage than good, distorting the delicate and highly organized nerve tissue even further. In the early 1990s, doctors began using large doses of steroids to reduce such inflammation. Today, steroids are considered the standard of care.
"We've learned to meticulously care for the patient from the moment of injury," says Staas, who cared for Taliaferro. "With traumatic spinal cord injury, it's important to get steroids on board and stabilize the neck so that the partial [paralysis] doesn't become complete."
Lying on the field last Sept. 23, Taliaferro says he had no idea he was paralyzed. All he knew was that his body wasn't listening to him.
"I couldn't feel anything on my body," he says. "Everything was numb. I was trying to get up, and nothing was moving."
Taliaferro had fractured the fifth cervical vertebra near the base of the neck. Lucky for him, Wayne Sebastianelli, MD, Penn State's team doctor, knew exactly what to do. Within minutes of the accident, he immobilized Taliaferro's neck and body and got him into an ambulance, where the fallen football player immediately was given intravenous steroids.