How Advances in Technology are Helping People with Paralysis

Written by Aitken * Aitken * Cohn

The neuroscience and biomedical communities are making incredible strides to restore mobility in people with spinal cord injury. From nerve-stimulation devices to brain-implant chips, a new generation of technology offers hope to paralyzed patients.

According to a study released by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, nearly 1 in 50 people, or approximately 5.4 million people, live with paralysis. Incidents such as spinal cord injuries can come with unpredictable outcomes, and while some patients recover entire movement, others suffer permanent paralysis. Research has found that along with paralysis comes other challenges such as losing bladder control, sexual dysfunction, bedsores, and mental health problems. But it’s not to say that people with paraplegia won’t have the opportunity to walk someday. According to Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry online, there have been several technological breakthroughs throughout the years that have enabled paralyzed people to walk again with support. New assistive technology advances can help people with spinal cord injuries and people recovering from injuries that have led to paralysis by receiving neuromuscular electrical stimulation to assist with voluntary movements and help recover motor function.

Research by the Alliance of Advanced Biomedical Engineering finds that most individuals with paraplegia will require wheelchair assistance for the rest of their lives. One common issue wheelchair users face is increased exposure to vibration, damaging muscles and nerves and causing back pain. Apart from being challenging to get around, prolonged sitting in a wheelchair can also put the person at risk for pressure ulcers. This complication can diminish one’s quality of life. A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health found that newly injured people rarely received sufficient training in wheelchair skills and maintenance, leading to premature wheelchair failure, injuries, and downtime for users. Apart from using a wheelchair, physical therapy was widely available for patients. While it can help them regain some lost function, restoring meaningful movement to the legs is more difficult to accomplish with treatment alone.

In the last decade, research has shown that assistive technology can bridge this gap for people with paraplegia to regain function and independence. Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s neuroscience startup Neuralink is developing brain implant technology that lets paralyzed patients move, touch, and feel with their thoughts. The concept of the brain-computer interface (BCI) still needs FDA approval. However, the regulator approved a non-invasive head wearable device designed to help people disabled by a stroke regain control of their arms and hand functions, using their thoughts.

While spinal cord injuries permanently damage some nerves, some healthy nerves usually still exist. Recent studies show that researchers have been trying to use electrical stimulation to reverse the effects in those who have suffered paralysis for many years. They have found that artificially increasing electrical activity in the spinal cord can help to activate the nerves that transmit information between the limbs and the brain. Two studies have found that the spinal stimulation protocol, known as stimulation movement overground (STIMO), established a new framework to improve recovery for patients that have suffered paralysis for many years. According to the spinal cord research foundation Wings for Life, this happens by combining two different treatments: precise epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and robot-assisted locomotion (walking) training.

Over the years, science has made considerable advances in improving the lives of those disabled by paralysis, and recent improvements in robotic technologies are increasingly associated with successful patient outcomes. A recent example is robotic exoskeletons used to rehabilitate paralysis following a stroke, spinal cord, or traumatic brain injuries. According to a news article by Hopkins Medicine, wearable robots enable individuals with lower extremity paralysis or weakness to stand up and walk by having the user’s weight shift to activate sensors in the device to walk some steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs forward, replacing as much of the patient’s deficient neuromuscular function, which is required to achieve ambulation. Earlier this year, a team of Johns Hopkins neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers claimed they were in the works of developing both implantable and wearable devices to be implemented at the time of surgery to allow continuously postoperative treatment of spinal cord injury. The technology’s purpose would be to prevent secondary injury such as neurological damage and promote lower extremity muscle function, cardiovascular stability, and bladder function.

Individuals who have paralysis have the right to lead good quality and independent lives. Due to the limitations presented by paralysis, it is almost impossible to live a good life without some assistive device. Thankfully, researchers and doctors are working to improve assistive technology, which can do incredible things to keep people connected, make everyday tasks more accessible, and allow paralyzed victims to have improved living conditions.

Aitken * Aitken * Cohn has successfully represented numerous victims of spinal cord injuries. Our law firm has the compassion, resources, and experience to consult the unfortunate spinal cord injury victims. Contact us today for a confidential consultation.