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Encouraging Prospects for Treating Spinal Cord Injuries With Electrical Stimulation

Spinal cord injuries are among the most devastating and life-changing types of injuries for those who suffer them. Life truly is never the same again, and even the most basic tasks of daily living must somehow be accomplished in a new way.

For anyone facing the challenge of spinal cord injuries, the story of Rob Summers is an inspiring one. Summers, now 25, was left a paraplegic by a hit-and-run car accident in 2006. His spine was not completely severed, but he was paralyzed from the chest down. This meant losing bowel and bladder control, sexual function, and the ability to walk.

But he heard about an experimental research project at the University of Louisville using electrical stimulation of the damaged spinal cord. The idea was to try to simulate the missing signals that the brain normally sends through the spinal cord to the legs and other muscles in the lower part of the body.

Summers agreed to participate in the experimental project. The first step was to engage in over two years of intensive rehabilitation with therapists, practicing the process of trying to move his legs again. The second step was to receive the surgical implant of a device to electronically stimulate parts of the spinal cord.

Remarkably, this ambitious and grueling rehabilitation experiment has produced results that many experts are calling a breakthrough in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. After receiving electrical stimulation, Rob Summers was able to stand up on his own and remain standing for up to four minutes. He also regained some bowel and bladder control and sexual function.

Experts caution that the results in Summers' case have not yet been replicated in others. But as lead researcher Susan Harkema noted at a recent press conference, "It opens up a whole new set of possibilities for patients, not just those recently injured but those who have been injured for months and years."

Source: "Medical Breaththrough: Paraplegic Man Stands Up," Time Healthland, 5-20-11

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