How Technology Is Helping to Improve Life After Spinal Cord Injury
A spinal cord injury often causes paralysis and loss of functionality of some level, which, unfortunately, currently is irreversible.
However, much time, money and effort are being poured into the research and development of technology that is helping to improve life after injury. These can help with the acute recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration back into normal life following a spinal cord injury. Indeed, there are already specific technologies that are bringing us a step at a time closer to fuller and more conclusive recoveries.
Although we are far off finding a cure for spinal cord injury, these technologies can help to compensate for any loss of function experienced.
The applications for these revolutionary technologies are wide and varying and include; “providing improved options for both grasp and manipulation, seating and mobility, augmentative and alternative communication, electronic aids to daily living, and computer access and use.”
Technologies Revolutionising Spinal Cord Recovery
There are certainly many well-established technologies already available. These advancing technologies are altering the ways in which spinal cord injury individuals are participating in rehabilitation. This is because technology, playing an increasing part in both compensatory rehabilitative interventions and in restorative rehabilitation, is involving individuals more actively in their rehabilitative programs and with more exciting and encouraging results - which, from an emotional perspective, can be hugely impactful.
Currently, Pressure Mapping and Locomotor Training are two technologies that, in recent years, have transformed spinal cord rehabilitation. Pressure mapping exposes pressure when in certain positions i.e. sat in a wheelchair. Locomotor Training (for those still able to ambulate), helps muscles to retain Central Nervous System (CNS) circuits and plasticity by going through certain motions i.e. walking when your weight is supported wholly.
Although both are relatively primal in their theory, they have proved to be of huge significance. Pressure mapping for one has resulted in an increase of comfort for spinal patients and pressure relief. Locomotor training not only has seen improvements in regaining functionality for those with incomplete spinal injuries but also signifies a shift in our spinal injury understanding:
Not too long ago, rehabilitation was thought to be “compensatory, teaching the body to work around the functions lost. However, we now understand that rehabilitation is a key part of recovery with well-documented changes that range from moving, standing and stepping to improved health and quality of life.” (Words From The Christopher Reeve Foundation, see here.)
Technology Currently Improving Spinal Cord Injury
Epidural Spinal Stimulation
A research programme funded by The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and The Christopher Reeve Foundation that used spinal stimulation saw five men with complete motor paralysis able to voluntarily generate step-like movements.
Functional Electrical Stimulation
Functional Electrical Stimulation or FES, used in Spinal Cord Injury rehabilitation, involves the application of small electrical charges directly to muscles. This application causes paralysed muscles to contract in the way that they would if they were walking or moving. This is important as it allows muscles that are no longer in use to retain their muscle memory of certain functions, which can prove invaluable for recovering improved functionality down the line.
FES is delivering promising results in spinal injury research especially in restoring unaided breathing, unaided coughing, enhancing bowel and bladder control, increasing hand movement and grasping functions and also by improving blood flow to the skin - which can prove game changing for thermoregulation, where the lack off is the cause of many secondary problems among spinal injured individuals. (Taken from 'Spinal Cord Injury: Hope Through Research', National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), available here.)
One form of robotic-assisted therapy that is changing the face of spinal cord injury rehabilitation is the recent introduction of exoskeletons. Exoskeletons are electronically powered bionic limbs that are equipped with small motors strategically placed on the joints. They can be used to mimic walking in those who struggle to walk or to those who are paralysed.
Ekso, pictured above, and Rewalk are the leading manufacturer of these devices, with Rewalk’s bionic legs being approved by the FDA in 2014 for as a Personal System for use in the home and in the community. Whereas, Ekso’s device is marketed more as a rehabilitative technology for improving spinal cord recovery.
Rewalk’s device improves the lives of those living with SCI by offering them the ability to move around independently of a wheelchair by standing, stepping and walking. Ekso bionic legs, on the other hand, are focused on improving the functional reclamation following a spinal cord injury.
Similar to FES, exoskeletons - in the rehabilitation arena - are beginning to aid in the improvements seen in muscle movement by maintaining the muscle memory in the legs and saddle area that is often rendered inactive after a traumatic blow to the spinal cord.
Following, clinicians are starting to suggest that exoskeleton devices offer users an instant emotional release by physically being able to walk and stand. More than this, exoskeletons are starting to vastly improve the lives of those living with spinal cord injuries by improving bone density, reducing pain caused by a sudden lack of activity. Whilst at the same time there emerging evidence that these robotic-assisted legs are also aiding improvements in bowel and bladder control.
Assistive Devices Improve Spinal Cord Injury
In addition to the above technologies, there already are many tried and tested assistive devices that are being utilised by many to improve on what is often felt to be a limited independence. One leading application for these assistive devices is to improve individual’s communicative powers. For instance, there are technologies that can help you access your computer, laptop or tablet by using a mouthpieces or eye tracking device as a control. These are immensely significant as they open up a hub of communication for those less able.
Aspire Law: Improving life after a Spinal Cord Injury
Aspire Law work closely with the charity Aspire, who offer practical help to people living with spinal cord injuries, helping them to regain as much independence as possible - whether that's via assistive devices, grants, housing help or even simply talking.
We understand that a spinal injury compensation claim won't turn the clock back, but a successful claim can help to manage the associated costs any assistive technology.
Even if you feel partly to blame for your accident, you should discuss your options with a specialist spinal cord injury law firm to discuss your options. At Aspire Law, we have extensive experience in these complex and highly sensitive cases. We have settled many claims where our client was partly to blame for their accident.
If you or a loved one has sustained a spinal cord injury as a result of an accident, please get in touch to see how we can help.