Kevin Everett, a tight end for the Buffalo Bills, was seriously injured a week ago. Immediately after hitting an opponent in a routine tackle, Everett fell to the ground motionless because of spinal cord damage. But while doctors were first pessimistic about his chances for recovery, he has since regained motion in some of his limbs and may be able to walk again. How did Everett escape complete paralysis?
Everett’s doctors employed a novel technique. On the way to the hospital, they started to cool his body by injecting him with two liters of ice-cold saline. After performing corrective surgery, doctors continued to cool his body by implanting a catheter into his femoral artery. This time, cold saline was recycled through intravenous balloons instead of entering his bloodstream. The technique cooled his body temperature from 98°F to 92°F. The New York Times has a nice diagram along with their writeup.
At the very least, moderate hypothermia treatment does not hurt most patients with neurological injuries. At most, it may constitute a medical breakthrough. But how does it work?
The short answer is that nobody knows for sure. That said, there are plenty of hypotheses: cooling may reduce inflammation, slow down metabolism, regulate excitatory neurotransmitter signaling, stabilize the blood brain barrier and reduce dangerous free radical concentrations.
Everett’s treatment is part of a larger campaign to reduce football injuries by bringing state-of-the-art medicine to the field. For instance, some teams are buying portable CT scanners to assess injuries immediately.