According to a recent article in Medical News Today, Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) can significantly reduce disability caused by spinal cord injuries. The study was originally posted on line in the Journal of Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.
This relatively new treatment applies small electrical impulses to stimulate paralyzed muscles. The treatment has been shown to measurably improve a patient’s ability to pick up and hold objects. Dr. Popovic and his team concluded that FES should be used in conjunction with traditional physical therapy.
To see how this works, here’s an incredible demonstration by Children’s Hospital of an FES bicycle.
Here are some key facts about this study:
- FES therapy uses low-intensity electrical pulses generated by a pocket-sized electric stimulator.
- Unlike permanent FES systems, the one designed by Dr. Popovic and colleagues is for short-term treatment. The therapist uses the stimulator to make muscles move in a patient’s limb. The idea is that after many repetitions, the nervous system can ‘relearn’ the motion and eventually activate the muscles on its own, without the device.
- The randomized trial, believed to be the first of its kind, involved 21 rehabilitation inpatients who could not grasp objects or perform many activities of daily living. All received conventional occupational therapy five days per week for eight weeks. However, one group (9 people) also received an hour of stimulation therapy daily, while another group (12 people) had an additional hour of conventional occupational therapy only.
- Patients who received only occupational therapy saw a “gentle improvement” in their grasping ability, but the level of improvement achieved with stimulation therapy was at least three times greater using the Spinal Cord Independence Measure, which evaluates degree of disability in patients with spinal cord injury.
- Based on their findings, the study’s authors recommend that stimulation therapy should be part of the therapeutic process for people with incomplete spinal cord injuries whose hand function is impaired.
- Dr. Popovic’s team has almost completed a prototype of their stimulator, but need financial support to take it forward. Dr. Popovic thinks the device could be available to hospitals within a year of being funded.One limitation of the study is that the research team could not get all participants to take part in a six-month follow-up assessment. However, six individuals who received FES therapy were assessed six months after the study. All had better hand function after six months than on the day they were discharged from the study.
- Dr. Popovic stresses that FES therapy should augment, and not replace, existing occupational therapy.
- Another study, now underway, will determine whether stimulation therapy can improve grasping ability in people with chronic (long-term) incomplete spinal cord injuries.
If you or a loved one suffer from spinal cord injury, please consult with a physician about FES. In conjunction with physical therapy, this non-invasive medical procedure promises tremendous benefits to patients with spinal cord injuries. If you are aware of other studies or treatment relating to rehabilitation from spinal cord injuries, we encourage you to share your knowledge with our readers.