New treatment helps some with spinal cord injury regain functionality

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new treatment breakthrough for people with spinal cord injury. The treatment allows some spinal cord injury patients to regain hand and arm function. Researchers say that nearly 18,000 Americans experience traumatic spinal cord injuries every year, leaving many of them unable to use their hands and arms.

Without the ability to use their hands and arms, they are unable to do everyday tasks like eating, grooming, or drinking water without assistance. The process developed at the University of Washington uses physical therapy combined with noninvasive stimulating of nerve cells in the spinal cord. The team was able to help six Seattle area participants regain some hand and arm mobility.

The regained mobility for the study participants lasted 3 to 6 months after treatment ended. Lead author Dr. Fatma Inanici said that such an immediate reaction to the first stimulation session wasn't expected at the beginning of the study. She said her experience was that there was a limit to how much people could recover, but it looks like that's changing.

The team from the University included researchers from the Center for Neurotechnology. They combined stimulation with standard physical therapy exercises, but the stimulation they use doesn't require surgery. Some similar studies required implanting a nerve stimulator to deliver electric current to a damaged spinal cord.

The new process developed by the University researchers uses small patches that adhere to the skin similar to Band-Aids. The patches are placed around the injured area on the back of the neck and deliver electrical pulses. All participants in the study had been injured for at least a year and a half, and some couldn't wiggle their fingers or thumbs while some had limited mobility at the beginning of the study. Participants were part of a five-month training program involving intensive physical therapy training three times a week for two hours at a time. Researchers say some participants regained some hand function during training alone, but all saw improvements when stimulation was combined with training.