Medical Moment: restoring movement to paraplegics

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 11:01 PM EST
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More than 5,000 people in the U.S. become paralyzed from the neck down each year due to a spinal cord injury. The first six-to-twelve months after the injury are critical. The movement gained during this time is usually all the movement they will regain for the rest of their lives. But now, neurosurgeons are giving new hope to patients.

Andy Hellrich has been confined to a wheelchair for five years. He vividly remembers the day he walked into a chiropractor’s office and never walked again.

“And then after they manipulated my neck, I took four steps away from the adjustable table,” Hellrich says. “And then I sat down in the chair.”

His C5 & C6 vertebrae were broken. Two years after his injury, a team of researchers at Washington University’s School of Medicine performed a nerve transfer on Andy’s left hand to give him more movement.

Typically taking nerves from larger muscles like the biceps or elbow and tricep flexors, surgeons attach the nerve from above the site of injury to nerves below the site of injury that connect to muscles in the hands and arms.

Doctors say the best candidates have suffered spinal cord injuries in their necks and are at least six months out from their injury. Recently, surgeons have even performed the nerve transfer on a patient who has been paralyzed for thirty years.

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