Each day car accidents and other tragic events leave victims paralyzed for the rest of their life. There are 250,000 Americans who have a spinal cord injury and 37% are caused by motor vehicle accidents each year. Of these injured individuals, half are paraplegic.
With average lifetime costs for paraplegics being $400,000 and an estimated 48% of spinal cord injury (SCI) victims being uninsured, the impact of this debilitating injury is magnified. Unfortunately, 63% of SCI (spinal cord injured) individuals are unemployed 8 years after the injury so making a living to cover those expenses is difficult.
Until now, these victims have had very little to hope for in terms of regaining their mobility lost to the injury.
However, new breakthroughs in electrical stimulation therapy for paraplegics have shown promise. University of Louisville neuroscientist Susan Harkema oversaw a recent study in applied electrical stimulation and its effect on nerve pathways after injury.
Over five years, Harkema’s team applied electrical stimulation to paralyzed men with broken spinal cords. Amazingly, all four patients were able to develop movement. This marked the first time electrical stimulation allowed patients to move voluntarily after a paralyzing spinal cord injury. The level of regained movement varied – participants went from being paralyzed to being able to wiggle their big toes, lift and swing their legs, and move their ankles up and down without support.
Currently, the stimulation can only activate one muscle group at a time. Yet, patients are already showing dramatically improved bladder, bowel and sexual function. While things like lifting a leg may seem insignificant to able-bodied people, these simple movements give spinal cord injury victims a sense of freedom and independence that is incredibly meaningful.
An important takeaway from this research is the hope it has given people paralyzed from a spinal cord injury.
Knowing there is a reasonable chance that they can regain their mobility may give them the motivation to walk an extra 10 steps in physical therapy or do an extra hour of leg lifts. And hopefully, this research has merely scratched the surface of what is possible.