A new device developed at the University of Toronto stimulates the muscles of patients with spinal cord injuries, helping to increase the walking function in those with no hope of walking.
The university 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 enhance their walking skills by improving 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 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 practicing 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.
Popovic and colleagues are now conducting a similar study on a larger scale. Popovic believes that in the next couple of years, someone could develop a suitable functional electrical stimulator for this therapy and market it.
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.