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Electrical Stimulation for Spinal Cord Injury: 3 Potential Treatments

the ultimate guide to electrical stimulation for spinal cord injury

Electrical stimulation for spinal cord injury primarily relieves pain and more recently, is helping patients regain voluntary muscle control.

Because electrical stimulation is allowing those with incomplete spinal cord injury to regain mobility, researchers are looking for different ways to utilize it.

Types of Electrical Stimulation for Spinal Cord Injury

Below, we’ll guide you through 3 potential treatments for spinal cord injury that use electrical stimulation.

1. Epidural Stimulation for Spinal Cord Injury

Electric currents are sent down your spinal cord to excite the nerves below the injury.

The first treatment we’re going to go over is epidural stimulation.

It’s the most developed and popular type of electrical stimulation for spinal cord injury and for good reason.

How does it work?

The process consists of implanting an electrode array into the lower surface of your spine.

The implant sends electric currents down the spinal cord which activates paralyzed muscles so you can move again.

You control the frequency and exposure of electric currents with a remote.

What are the results?

After intense physical training and epidural stimulation, patients have been able to recover lower extremity motor functions and walking ability with assisting devices.

However, these results have only been able to be achieved with the stimulator on.

We have an article all about epidural stimulation that you can refer to for more details about clinical trials, benefits, and risks.

2. Intraspinal Microstimulation for Spinal Cord Injury

The second treatment is intraspinal microstimulation (ISMS).

It builds off the principle concepts of epidural stimulation but focuses more on precision.

Intraspinal microstimulation is a type of electrical stimulation being used to potentially treat spinal cord injury. By placing hairlike wires into the gray matter of the spinal cord, there is a more precise stimulation of neurons.

How does it work?

Intraspinal microstimulation (ISMS) is the process of implanting thin, flexible electrode wires into the lumbar region of the spinal cord, which allows for selective muscle activation than epidural stimulation.

Surgery for ISMS is much more invasive than that for epidural stimulation. The hairlike wires have to be placed inside the gray matter of the spinal cord rather than on the surface.

This sends electric currents directly to motor pools, which control movement.

What are the results?

This incorporates a greater element of precision in stimulating the spinal circuits, leading to more stable functional results and reducing damage to spinal cord tissues.

With traditional functional electrical stimulation, muscle fatigue occurs rapidly which affects how far and long you can talk. In contrast, ISMS in animal models has yielded fatigue-resistant contractions.

Another advantage of ISMS is its ability to produce functional synergy groups. Rather than activating each muscle separately, you can stimulate a single wire to produce synergies of multiple muscles.

Research on rats, monkeys, and cats show recovery of paralyzed limbs. Although ISMS still needs approval for human trials, its effects on animal models prove promising.

3. Brain-Computer Interface

The last treatment that uses electrical stimulation for spinal cord injury is brain-computer interface.

This process is called many different names so if you ever hear about brain-machine interface, brain-controlled interface, neural-control interface, or mind-machine interface, know that it’s all referring to the same concept.

Brain-computer interface is a developing process that uses electrical stimulation for spinal cord injury recovery. Just by thinking of walking, you can trigger electrical stimulations that allow you to move.

How does it work?

The basic idea behind brain-computer interface is to monitor primary motor cortex activity by placing electrodes near that part of the brain. The purpose of this is to reveal that there is an intent to move.

The electrodes will then stimulate electrical currents to restore functional activity in paralyzed limbs.

Just by thinking about walking, people can control the electrical stimulation that allows their legs to move again.

What are the results?

A 2008 study on monkeys used a neurochip stimulator to convert brain activity into electrical stimulation of paralyzed muscles. The monkeys were able to move their paralyzed arms through the brain-activated electrical stimulations.

Although the idea is still in earlier stages of research and needs further development, brain-computer interface definitely seems like a potential treatment for people with paraplegia.

Watch the video below of a noninvasive brain-controlled interface trial that has allowed a  patient with paraplegia to achieve overground walking after SCI.

Non-invasive methods have shown lots of promise so researchers are hoping to develop an invasive brain-controlled interface as a permanent solution to paralysis after spinal cord injury.

The Future for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery

It’s pretty clear that electrical stimulation will play a significant role in the future of spinal cord injury recovery.

These 3 potential treatments are so different in approach, but all share the common goal of promoting voluntary motor control in paralyzed patients.

There’s a lot to look forward to and we can’t wait to see how these treatments develop.

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