In a study, Toronto scientists found that a new treatment approach, which uses tiny bursts of electricity to reawaken paralyzed muscles "significantly," reduced disability and improved grasping ability in people with incomplete spinal cord injuries.
They reported that functional electrical stimulation therapy (FES) worked considerably better than conventional occupational therapy alone to increase patients` ability to pick up and hold objects.
FES therapy designed by Popovic and colleagues uses low-intensity electrical pulses generated by a pocket-sized electric stimulator.
Unlike permanent FES systems, the new therapy is for short-term treatment.
The therapist uses the stimulator to make muscles move in a patient`s limb. The idea is that after many repetitions, the nervous system can `relearn` the motion and eventually activate the muscles on its own, without the device.
The randomized trial involved 21 rehabilitation inpatients who could not grasp objects or perform many activities of daily living.
All received conventional occupational therapy 5days per week for eight weeks. However, one group also received an hour of stimulation therapy daily, while another group had an additional hour of conventional occupational therapy only.
Patients who received only occupational therapy saw a "gentle improvement" in their grasping ability, but the level of improvement achieved with stimulation therapy was at least 3 times greater.
The study was published online in the journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair.