New tech offers hope for spinal cord injuries

Researchers may have found a way to help those with spinal cord injuries recover without surgery.

Kelly Servos 3 minute read January 14, 2021
Spinal cord injury

There is currently no cure for spinal cord injury. Getty

A new non-invasive method of stimulating a damaged spinal cord is helping people  regain mobility in their arms and hands.

Spinal cord injury is devastating and impairs the quality of life of those injured. These injuries prevent victims from engaging in simple daily tasks such as eating or drinking. According to Spinal Cord Injury BC, it is estimated that more than 85,000 people suffer from spinal cord injury in Canada.

And while there is currently no cure for spinal cord injury, patients typically engage in exercise therapy to improve motor function. Some previous research have shown that implanting a stimulator to deliver electric current to a damaged spinal cord could help paralyzed patients regain mobility. However, researchers at the University of Washington may have found a way to stimulate the nerves in the spinal cord without surgery by using patches that stick to the skin like a Band-Aid and deliver electrical pulses to the injured area.

The study, which ran for five months, recruited six participants who had spinal cord injuries for a minimum of a year and a half — some participants were able to move their fingers and thumbs, while others had no mobility. In the first four weeks, researchers monitored baseline limb movements. The second month included intensive physical therapy training three times a week for two hours, and the third month combined physical therapy with Transcutaneous Electrical Spinal Cord Stimulation.

During the last two months of the study, participants were grouped based on the severity of their injuries. Participants with less severe injuries received an additional month of training and then a month of training combined with stimulation, and those with more severe injuries received training combined with stimulation, followed by training only.

While some participants regained some hand function during training alone, all six saw improvements when stimulation was combined with training. More encouraging, the participants maintained improvements and were able to resume hobbies for at least three to six months after treatment.

Lead author Dr. Fatma Inanici, said he did not expect to see immediate results at the beginning of the first stimulation session and was surprised. “ As a rehabilitation physician, my experience was that there was always a limit to how much people would recover. But now it looks like that’s changing. It’s so rewarding to see these results,” he said.

Chet Moritz, a UW associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, rehabilitation medicine and physiology and biophysics said “Both people who had no hand movement at the beginning of the study started moving their hands again during stimulation, and were able to produce a measurable force between their fingers and thumb.”

Some participants also saw improvements in other areas of their health including normal heart rate, better regulation of body temperature and bladder function.

Moritz said “We’re seeing a common theme across universities — stimulating the spinal cord electrically is making people better.”

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