New treatment for spinal cord injuries

Every year, more than 10,000 Americans suffer a spinal cord injury.

For some, it means total paralysis, for others, it's all about finding treatments that can help improve their strength and function. Now, an experimental rehab therapy has patients breathing their way to recovery.

27-year-old Drew Durrence is all about overcoming challenges. Eight years ago, he injured his spinal cord in a dirt bike accident.

Drew Durrence, injured spinal cord, describes when he first realized something was wrong, "When I tried to get up, I lost feeling and movement from about chest down."

Therapy, and Drew's determination, have brought some of that back. Now, he's part of a unique trial.

Physical therapist and biomedical engineer Doctor Randy Trumbower is studying how oxygen deprivation can trigger molecular changes that excite, or wake up, the nervous system.

Randy Trumbower, PHD Assistant Professor, Rehabilitation Medicine Emory University School of Medicine, describes the treatment, "And so what we're hoping is that by intermittently stimulating the spinal cord with this type of breathing intervention, that we're actually turning up the volume on spared connections."

Patients alternately breathe air with low, nine percent oxygen and normal, 21 percent oxygen.

Trumbower, explains some of the results of the treatment, "We found that individuals that experienced intermittent hypoxia for one day, for 45 minutes of exposure actually increased, on average, 80 percent changes in strength."

In early trials, this oxygen deprivation therapy also helped patients use muscles they couldn't use before.

Durrence, describes how the treatment has helped him in his everyday life, "If you can get just a little bit more strength where it makes it easier for you to stand up, or easier for you to do something, that's just another step."

Whatever it takes, Drew says he'll keep challenging himself to do more, taking control of his injury, instead of letting it control him.

The study is believed to be the first of its kind in the US.

Patients who had the therapy for seven consecutive days had improvements in strength that lasted for a month or more.

This trial has been going on since last year and is still recruiting patients in the Atlanta area for further studies.


REPORT: MB #3362

BACKGROUND: A spinal cord injury often causes permanent disability or loss of movement and sensation below the site of the injury. The ability to control limbs depends on two factors: the neurological level of the injury, which is the lowest functioning segment of the spinal cord, and the completeness of the injury. An injury is considered complete if all sensory and motor function is lost below the neurological level. The injury is incomplete if there is still some sensory and motor function below the injury site. Symptoms of spinal cord injuries include loss of movement; loss of the ability to feel heat or cold; loss of touch; difficulty breathing; coughing; and loss of bowel or bladder control. (SOURCE: Mayo Clinic)
CAUSES: A traumatic blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of the vertebrae can cause a spinal cord injury. The nerve fibers that pass through the injured area are affected, and therefore, may impair part or all of the corresponding muscles and nerves below the site of the injury. Other causes of spinal cord injury include a gunshot or knife wound that penetrates and cuts the spinal cord. Arthritis, cancer, inflammation, infections, or disc degeneration of the spine can also cause spinal cord injury. (SOURCE: Mayo Clinic)
NEW SPINAL CORD INJURY THERAPY: The new therapy for spinal cord injuries uses oxygen deprivation in order to trigger molecular changes that excite or awaken the nervous system. The therapy uses acute intermittent hypoxia, which has its roots in sleep apnea studies. People with sleep apnea undergo short periods of oxygen deprivation, which stimulates spinal plasticity -- the ability of the brain and nervous system to respond to experience or injury. Intermittent hypoxia was tested on subjects who had been paralyzed, by placing a breathing mask on them that was connected to an air generator that stimulates the air at the peak of Mount McKinley then returns the air to normal. Nerve cells associated with voluntary leg strength were stimulated through a 30-minute mild oxygen deprivation session, resulting in improved ankle strength that lasted four hours.

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