Helping Spinal Injury Patients Breathe Easier
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
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
Medical experts describe the device as a breakthrough for
people placed on ventilators after suffering devastating spinal cord
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
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
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
"It's wonderful. There's nothing like this in the
world," Conlan says. "When I was on the vent, I'd have to wait for it
to give me a breath before I could talk. Now I don't."
Onders says he would like to test the device in at least five
more patients and then seek FDA approval.
Down the road, Triolo says, doctors will call on many branches
of science to help patients with spinal cord injuries. Researchers currently
are trying to find out how to regrow damaged nerves, for instance, and movement
devices similar to the breathing stimulator are being developed to help
patients cope with the effects of their paralysis.