A new device developed at the University of Toronto that stimulates the muscles of patients with spinal cord injuries helps to increase walking function in those whose condition is not expected to improve.
U of T researchers have found that functional electrical stimulation (FES), a process that sends controlled bursts of electricity through the skin and into muscles, can help patients improve their step frequency, stride length and overall walking speed.
“This is a group of patients in which recovery is not expected,” says Professor Milos Popovic of the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering and the study’s senior researcher. “We got them on a treadmill and worked with them and 18 weeks later we saw quite a considerable improvement.”
Five patients, whose spinal cord injuries had taken place from two to 24 years prior to the study, completed two to five sessions per week of FES therapy. After practising with physiotherapists, the patients learned how to trigger their leg muscles as they walked. Over the course of 12 to 18 weeks, the patients gradually improved — one woman was even able to stop using a full-length leg brace while walking.
While the patients’ walking skills had decreased 10 weeks after treatment finished, the team found that overall walking skills were still considerably better than before the therapy. “It’s truly rewarding when the patients are happy and they write you a little card saying, Without you, I could not walk,” Popovic says. “In the next couple of years, I believe someone is going to develop a functional electrical stimulator that is suitable for this type of therapy and get it on the market,” he says.
Popovic and colleagues are now conducting a similar study on a larger scale.
The research was funded by the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Ontario Innovation Trust, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario. The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Spinal Cord.