New UMN treatment restores movement in patients with spinal cord injury

Electric stimulation devices show promise in early trials with spinal cord injury patients.

Gwiwon Jason Nam

Using electric stimulation, a new treatment led by University of Minnesota researchers shows promise for spinal injury patients.

In initial trials, spinal cord stimulation proved to be an effective method for immediately restoring voluntary movement in two spinal cord injury patients. A group of University researchers has teamed up with international researchers and are seeking more patients for future treatments.

“It takes about an hour to do the procedure. The very same day, the patients were already leaving the hospital. … We tested the device and it restored their ability to control and move their legs, which we found very exciting,” said David Darrow, principal investigator of the study and a neurosurgery resident at the University’s Medical School.

In the preliminary study, Darrow and his colleagues implanted a battery-powered device in the back of two female patients who had experienced severe spinal injuries. 

The device uses electric waves to stimulate nerves and restore function immediately without the need for significant rehabilitation, Darrow said.

“Our study is the first study to do this in people that are so far out from their injury and also so old,” Darrow said. “We want to see if it’s the therapy that works for everybody.”

The study found multiple other benefits to spinal cord stimulation, such as restoration of cardiovascular function, sexual function, natural performance of their bowels and improved blood pressure.

“Sometimes patients spend more than an hour a day or two hours a day just [trying] to go to the bathroom,” Darrow said. “Being able to help reduce one or two hours down to just 10 minutes or so, it really affects their lives and makes it a lot easier for them to get around.”

Sandra Mulder, a 49-year-old patient in the trial, still remembers the day of the accident that caused her spinal cord injury nearly seven years ago. She had no movement in her legs until participating in the study. 

“The surgery was easy,” Mulder said. “The next day was very exciting … they charged the stimulator on and I got movement right away from my toes.”

The number of people living with a spinal cord injury in the United States was estimated to be approximately 288,000 people in 2018, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. 

“It’s a little bit different with other diseases because there’s nothing really wrong with you except your spinal cord,” said Ann Parr, supervisor of the study and professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the Medical School. “Many patients are young and healthy and it just seemed … unfair to lose their function.”