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Spinal Cord Injury Paralysis Resource Center

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Functional Electrical Stimulation

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore or improve their function. FES is commonly used for exercise, but also to assist with breathing, grasping, transferring, standing and walking. FES can help some to improve bladder and bowel function. There's evidence that FES helps reduce the frequency of pressure sores.

FES made a splash in 1983 when Nan Davis, a paraplegic student at Wright State University, got out of her wheelchair and "walked" to get her diploma. She was powered by an FES system and inspired a TV movie called "First Steps."

The Wright State technology soon emerged commercially in the form of a stationary bicycle (ergometer) called the Regys; users pedaled the bike using FES-stimulated leg muscles. Researchers soon noted that this form of FES provides real aerobic exercise in people who otherwise can't move on their own; it boosts heart and lung function, improves strength and circulation, builds muscle mass, even in people with high quadriplegia.

Two companies make FES bikes in the U.S. Therapeutic Alliances, Inc., which originated the Regys 25 years ago, makes the Ergys 2 (www.musclepower.com). Restorative Therapies, Inc. offers the RT300-S which is operated from the wheelchair without the need for a transfer (www.restorative-therapies.com). RTI was started by Dr. John McDonald, the physician who got Christopher Reeve on an FES bike and who has claimed that FES helped Reeve get significant function back seven years after his C1 injury. According to McDonald, the FES bike can be more useful than just exercise. "We propose to use them for a totally different reason -- to promote regeneration and recovery of function." There is to date no support in the medical literature that FES affects recovery.

A doctor's prescription is needed for FES biking; each individual is given a program customized for run times, resistance, etc. The bikes cost in the range of $15,000. The manufacturers have yet to convince Medicare to pay for the devices. Some private insurance companies have reimbursed for them but many people access FES exercise in community settings, at health clubs and rehab clinics.

There are some risks associated with FES. Fracture of leg bones is possible due to loss of bone mineral density. Also, FES can trigger autonomic dysreflexia in upper-level injuries. People with severe spasticity, contractures, or osteoporosis are not good candidates.

Bladder or bowel FES:
Sacral stimulators are surgically implanted FES systems for on-demand control of the paralyzed bladder and bowel; these have been implanted in more than 1,500 paralyzed people, mostly in Europe. The stimulator, called the Finetech-Brindley device, has a strong track record for improving bladder and bowel control in the vast majority of users.

In 1999 a company called NeuroControl licensed the Brindley system and got FDA approval as the Vocare system. A company called NDI Medical more recently obtained the marketing rights to Vocare in the United States. See www.ndimedical.com.

Upper extremity:
About 15 years ago the FDA also approved an FES implant system to restores some hand and arm function to quads. The FreeHand system was well liked by the quads who used it; they gained significant function in grip, writing, eating, computer work, etc. Alas, NeuroControl dropped this from the market.

There is a commercially available device called Parastep that is FDA approved for some paraplegics (T4 to T12 ) for "ambulation." Parastep, which has been approved by Medicare for reimbursement, facilitates gait by firing leg muscles; a front-wheeled walker fitted with a control pad is used. Contact www.sigmedics.com.

The future:
Brain-wave communication, it's the next big leap in neuroprosthetics and it's nearly here: in clinical trials, people area already controlling computer cursors and opening email with just their thoughts. Monkeys can precisely move robotic arms using only brain waves.

BrainGate is an investigational brain implant system from a biotech company called Cyberkinetics that places a computer chip into the brain; this monitors brain activity and converts the intention of the user into computer commands. The company is currently recruiting people with spinal cord injury, stroke or muscular dystrophy conditions for pilot clinical trials in Boston, Chicago and Rhode Island. Call the company for more: 508-549-9981.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on FES Treadmill Information Sheet (PDF)

Cleveland FES CenterFES Resource Guide: First created through the generous support of the PVA organization, the FES Resource Guide lists a variety of international programs that deal with FES research and delivery.

International Functional Electrical Stimulation SocietyOffers a page on functional electrical stimulation.

The Spinal Cord Injury Information Network: FESThe Spinal Cord Injury Information Network at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is funded through federal grants to the UAB Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Secondary Conditions of Spinal Cord Injury and the UAB Model SCI Center. Use the link above, then search for information on skin care or any other topic in paralysis medicine, lifestyle or resource.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship areencouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.