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Bursts of electricity spark rehab in spinal injury victims

A rapid succession of minute jolts of electricity helps some victims of serious spinal injuries make significant leaps forward in their rehabilitation efforts, scientists at a Canadian research institute say.

The therapeutic effects of the tiny pulses of electricity enable some paralyzed patients to regain considerable use of their hands and arms, researchers at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute say. Their groundbreaking studies give hope to thousands of people who have sustained devastating personal injuries in car accidents, athletic events, workplace accidents, falls and other incidents.

Dr. Milos Popovic, a senior scientist at the Institute, said “If you invest a bit of time, many quadriplegics can actually…recover hand function.”

The rapid-fire bursts of electricity are delivered to muscles in the forearms at the rate of 40 per second.

Popovic says it won’t work for all patients, nor does it restore all movement in the hands and arms for those who will benefit from the technique.

In approximately 60 to 70 percent of spinal cord injuries resulting in quadriplegia (paralysis from the neck down), the person maintains limited arm movement.

Researchers have found that in many of those patients, when Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is applied, people recover much of their voluntary hand function.

With FES, electrodes are fastened to the skin above the forearm muscles that help patients’ fingers grasp objects.

When the electrodes are attached, researchers ask the patients to perform certain movements involving picking up or holding objects. When the patient is unable to perform the movement, electrical current is sent to the electrodes, stimulating the muscles. That stimulation enables the patient to complete the movement.

What researchers have found is that when this sequence of events is repeated, over time the patients are able to move voluntarily, free of the electrical stimulation.

The scientists are next going to explore whether FES can be effective in helping patients regain leg movement.

Resource: healthzone: “Tiny bursts of electricity help spinal patients use their hands”: February 16, 2011

John P. Aldrich
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