Best Methods for Activating Paralyzed Muscles

The current landscape for people with spinal cord injuries is better than it ever has been before with the physical therapy options now available. Medical professionals are finally treating the whole body in spite of paralysis and activating muscles post-injury is something many people want to do.

There are many reasons to activate muscles after a spinal cord injury. Keeping muscle tone is one of the first reasons, as it helps keep both the limbs and bones strong. It can also help with cardiovascular health if done regularly and it can help reduce spasms. Also, many people do not want their muscles to deteriorate for aesthetic purposes. And for those with incomplete injuries, and in some instances, with complete injuries, it can help improve function.

The good news is that there are many ways to activate muscles after a spinal cord injury or spinal contusion and many of these methods can be done at home. While it may cost a chunk of change to get some of these devices, insurance in many instances will cover them. Doctors can be very persuasive when it comes to the benefits of activating muscles. Below is an overview of some of the best ways to activate your muscles if paralyzed. 



Muscle activation post-injury can be easily achieved using functional electronic stimulation also known as FES. Known as one of the strongest methods to stimulate muscles, FES activates muscles by placing electrodes onto the paralyzed muscle and sending a low-level electrical pulse to it, making it move. Different programming can be used to make the legs move in various ways. 

Most people will use functional electronic stimulation to peddle a recumbent bicycle. There are several of these on the market that can be used at home. Many spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers offer FES bicycles and upper body FES machines as well to help activate arm muscles. Some of these facilities will even let you use the FES machines on an outpatient basis. Many of these facilities will recommend that you cycle for 1 hour, which is akin to 6000 steps. To see an FES machine available for home purchase, visit: 



Another popular form of muscle stimulation after a spinal cord injury is TENS, also known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This form of muscle activation is not as strong as FES, and therefore will not help with actual muscle movement, but it will help with decreasing pain because of the mild muscle stimulating nature of this treatment. It can also help reduce spasticity. Men have also found improved erectile function after using TENS stimulation. If you're interested in TENS, you'll need to talk to your doctor. TENS also uses electrodes placed on the skin, which is connected to a TENS machine and uses high-frequency stimulation.

Epidural Stimulation

Lower spinal cord

This method can achieve muscle stimulation by stimulating the lower part of the spinal cord with a continuous electric current, which is achieved by implanting a small chip on top of the spinal cord. This chip is then controlled with a small remote control which you can use to adjust the frequency and intensity of the current. 

Epidural stimulation allows people with spinal cord injuries to regain some voluntary movement of their legs. It can also help return many important autonomic functions, such as improving bladder function, sexual function, and temperature regulation. Unfortunately, epidural stimulation is only available to people in the United States in clinical trials.

Activity-Based Therapy


Activity-based therapy is a new way of activating muscles below the level of spinal cord injuries by using a variety of exercises and techniques aimed to help reorganize the nervous system. Motor learning, such as treadmill training, is used to help reactivate the muscles in the legs. Activity-based therapy has been proven to improve muscle abilities in many people with both complete and incomplete injuries. You can find activity-based therapy centers in many large cities across the US. You can also search for MAT (Muscle Activation Technique) therapists in your area who are taught activity-based techniques.

NuStep Exercise Machine

NuStep Machine

A simple but effective way to activate muscles, a NuStep Exercise Machine passively activates muscles below the level of injury. This machine uses your whole body. By using your arms to push the levers forward, the machine moves your legs, creating a passive movement that for many people with spinal cord injuries finds helpful in activating muscles. NuStep also sells various accessories to help keep your legs in place. Learn more:

Life with a spinal cord injury can get busy, and as the years go by activating muscles may be something that falls to the wayside. It is important however that you make sure to activate your muscles regularly to maintain their strength and to continue the benefits of the activation.  

Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Paralysis, Muscle Activation Technique

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