Electrical stimulation is again making news for helping people with spinal cord injuries (SCIs) make progress in their spinal cord injury recovery. In a recently published article in Nature, researchers shared how electrical stimulation, in combination with physical therapy, helped human test subjects with residual motor function regain control of their leg muscles.
Describing the present day as a “breakthrough” time for spinal cord injury research, the researchers used electrical stimulation physical therapy to help three people recover leg control and improve their ability to walk. Even after the therapy ceased, however, some of the subjects continued showing improvement in muscle movement.
What is electrical stimulation therapy, and how has it helped these patients (and others) with their spinal cord injury recovery?
The History of Electrical Stimulation Therapy & How It Works
Electrical stimulation is the practice of using electrodes to transmit low-level electrical impulses to specific muscles in a patient’s extremities to facilitate contractions and maximize spinal cord injury recovery. Many spinal cord injury rehabilitation centers use electrical stimulation as one of their spinal cord injury treatment options. Although the stimulation doesn’t cause the muscles to move on their own, it is used in conjunction with the patients’ efforts to engage or move their muscles themselves, acting as an amplifier.
This treatment method causes the targeted muscles to contract — which can result in several electrical muscle stimulation benefits such as:
- Reducing the occurrence of muscle spasms,
- Working the muscle to help retain some muscle density and strength and reduce muscle atrophy, and
- Increasing muscle control and decreasing spasticity and flaccidity.
To promote spinal cord injury recovery, electrical stimulation can be performed through above-the-skin electrodes via functional electrical stimulation (FES) or below the skin through epidural electrical stimulation (EES), which implants electrodes in the epidural space of your vertebral spine.
Although spinal cord stimulation (SCS) has been around for about 50 years, it is making huge strides in its ability to help people with certain levels of spinal cord injuries (SCIs) regain the ability to walk. The study, published in Nature, is just one of the latest studies in spinal cord injury research relating to EES.
How the Study May Aid Spinal Cord Injury Recovery
The purpose of the study, which was headed by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, was to determine how spinal epidural stimulation, in combination with intense physical therapy, could help to restore walking function in individuals with varying levels of spinal cord injuries to enhance their spinal cord injury recovery. However, the study was of patients who retained some residual motor function below their injury sites.
One of the things that differs about Courtine’s study was that, according to the Nature article, his team implemented “precisely timed stimulation” rather than continuous stimulation as part of the electrical stimulation physical therapy, “which might be blocking some residual signals traveling from the legs back to the brain.”
According to the electrical stimulation therapy study for spinal cord injuries, this “burst stimulation and spatiotemporal stimulation” helps to facilitate the naturally-occurring signals between the brain and body that control motor neuron activity by mitigating interference that may occur during continuous EES.
Essentially, the researchers determined what areas of the spinal cord are involved in specific movements that are necessary for walking (hip flexion, ankle extensions, etc.). Then, they programmed specific electrical pulse sequences to stimulate the particular regions of the study subjects’ spinal cords at specific times to help facilitate their movements.
According to the Nature article, another component of the electrical stimulation therapy research conducted by Courtine and his team for spinal cord injury recovery is the development of a technology that can be used outside of a lab. The new tech includes “wearable sensors that trigger the stimulation, and an app that runs on a voice-controlled watch, allowing users to pick the exact form of stimulation needed.”
More Advancements in Spinal Cord Injury Research
This study is just one of many that have been conducted. Other recent and exciting advancements in spinal cord injury research to maximize spinal cord injury recovery in patients include:
- The creation of 3D printed medical devices that would serve as a platform of specialized neuronal stem cells;
- The grafting of cultured spinal cord neural stem cells (NSCs) in rats with SCIs;
- Gene therapy research that helped restore hand function in rats with spinal cord injuries;
- The use of olfactory ensheathing cells to trigger spinal cord nerve regeneration;
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