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Treatment Helps Paralyzed Man Walk

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Jan. 31, 2002 -- Three-and-half years after suffering a spinal cord injury, a quadriplegic man can now walk again, thanks to a new treatment technique. After months of treadmill training and spinal stimulation, the man can walk 1,000 feet, albeit slowly and with effort. The researchers contend that the same procedure may help restore some measure of mobility in up to 35% of the 250,000 Americans with spinal cord injury.

Richard Herman, from Arizona State University in Tempe, and colleagues first put the man on a treadmill training regimen. This "partial weight-bearing therapy," in which a harness supported his body, was meant to get his legs reaccustomed to a walking rhythm. With this treadmill training alone, the man could eventually walk 50 feet in three minutes, but only at considerable effort and with a jerky, unsteady stride.

The researchers then implanted electrodes in the man's lower back, where the gentle electrical stimulation apparently excited nervous circuits in the spinal cord. This vastly improved the smoothness and ease of his walking. He could go the same 50 feet in just 1 minute, and with a near-normal walk. And tests showed his body was becoming more energy efficient. He was burning fat, rather than sugar, to fuel his walks.

The addition of spinal cord stimulation to the treadmill training generated immediate improvement in his walking stride, the researchers write. Not only did it make his walking smoother, they say, it lessened his sense of exertion so he wasn't so fatigued and reduced the amount of energy he had to expend.

The paralyzed man is now "able to perform multiple functional tasks within the home and community," thanks to the combined treatment approach, the researchers write. And although the results reported are derived from only one person, it is clear that the combined treatment can help restore walking of a wheelchair-bound person, they say.

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