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Back Pain Health Center

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Helping Spinal Injury Patients Breathe Easier

WebMD Health News

Feb. 28, 2001 -- In the drive to help spinal injury patients regain lost body functions, researchers continue to design and develop the technology to make it possible.

Researchers demonstrated a major step forward Tuesday, a breathing device that has been surgically implanted into a patient with a spinal cord injury, allowing him to talk more easily and to breathe without a bulky ventilator.

Physicians at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University and affiliated hospitals developed the procedure, which they describe as being less risky and less expensive than previous surgical implants. The procedure was funded by Case's University Hospitals, the Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Surgical Corp., and a three-year, $300,000 grant from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Medical experts describe the device as a breakthrough for people placed on ventilators after suffering devastating spinal cord injuries.

The push to create functional electrical stimulation (FES) devices, such as this new breathing apparatus, already has resulted in several FDA-approved products hitting the market, experts tell WebMD.

In fact, the Cleveland FES Center already produces an approved stimulator that improves a patient's bladder control, as well as another that helps patients grasp objects with their hands, says Ronald J. Triolo, PhD, who works with the center.

The experimental breathing device presented Tuesday, Triolo tells WebMD, "has the potential to be life-altering to people with spinal injuries."

About 10,000 Americans suffer spinal cord injuries every year, according to National Institutes of Health statistics. Of that number, says Case Western Reserve surgeon Raymond Onders, MD, about 500 people suffer injuries that require them to use a ventilator.

One such person is 36-year-old Tom Conlan, who has been quadriplegic since a 1998 swimming accident injured his spinal cord. Last year, Onders led the surgical team that implanted Conlan with the new FES breathing device.

Doctors implanted the device in Conlan in an outpatient procedure by placing electrodes on his diaphragm muscle. The electrodes, attached to a small battery pack, stimulate the nerve that allows normal inhalation and exhalation.

Conlan praises the new device, saying he can't believe he no longer needs to have tubes sticking out of his throat to connect to a ventilator anymore.

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