Spinal cord stimulators and intense physical therapy are helping paraplegic patients relearn how to walk. Spinal cord stimulators can potentially help "wake up" dormant nerves.
Three people who have been paralyzed for years are now able to walk thanks to a revolutionary new technology, according to papers published in two medical journals on Monday. Two teams of researchers working separately in Minnesota and Kentucky worked on the breakthrough, which allowed paraplegic patients to get out of their wheelchairs.
While the researchers noted that the discovery is not a cure, and patients must still use walkers to get around, patient Jered Chinnock was able to walk the length of two football fields at Minnesota's renowned Mayo Clinic.
The theory behind the new spinal cord stimulator technology is that the nerves between the brain and legs that are cut off in paraplegic patients are still living, just dormant. By applying electric currents to these nerves in specific patterns, doctors were able to revive these nerves enough to receive basic commands from the brain.
That and years of intensive physical therapy is what helped Chinnock, who was paralyzed in a snowmobile accident in 2013.
"The walking side of it isn't something where I just leave my wheelchair behind and away I go," Chinnock, 29, told the Associated Press. But, "there is the hopeful side of, maybe I'll gain that — where I can leave the wheelchair behind, even if it is to walk to the refrigerator."
The spinal cord 'relearns to do things'
In a separate but similar study conducted by Dr. Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville in Kentucky, three patients were able to regain partial mobility.
However, Harkema warned in her paper for the New England Journal of Medicine that the procedure would not work for everyone.
"Recovery can happen if you have the right circumstances," she wrote, adding that, with her new procedure, the spinal cord "relearns to do things, not as well as it did before, but it can function."
Harkema first made headlines four years ago when the first patients to try spinal cord stimulators were able to wiggle their toes and briefly move their legs.
es/kms (AP, AFP)