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High-intensity hope for spinal cord patients

Monday, 08 April 2019

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A form of strength training rarely used on spinal cord patients due to concerns about its intensity has been shown to deliver a raft of health benefits in a small but potentially ground-breaking study.

Five patients with chronic spinal cord injury demonstrated reduced spasticity, improved muscle strength and better quality of life as a result of research using high-intensity neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES).

NMES strength training – the use of electrical impulses to contract muscles – is usually performed at low intensities for spinal cord patients due to assumed tolerance levels.

But Edith Cowan University (ECU) Professor in Biomechanics Tony Blazevich said participants not only tolerated the high-intensity stimulation during supervised sessions over 12 weeks – they also experienced significant health benefits.

“Symptoms of spasticity were significantly reduced, muscle strength and mass improved and there was also an improvement in cholesterol levels,” Professor Blazevich said.

“Importantly there was a clear improvement in findings recorded against the Quality of Life Index, which is perhaps reflective of participants feeling physically active because they’re experiencing muscle contractions of the paralysed muscle.

“One subject, a former competitive surfer, expressed that he was enjoying having a ‘leg day at the gym’.”

Hope on the horizon

Lead researcher Dr Vanesa Bochkezanian, now of Central Queensland University, said it was vital that spinal cord patients maintained muscle strength and mass.

“Research and new technologies are moving forward and we are all hoping that a cure for spinal cord injury will be a reality soon,” Dr Bochkezanian said.

“In the meantime, it’s crucial for people with spinal cord injuries to be physically ready for the breakthroughs on the near horizon.

“Our study was a clear example of how the use of high-intensity muscle strength training-electrical stimulation in the legs of spinal cord patients can help them become stronger, healthier and happier.”

According to the Spinal Cord Injury Network, more than 10,000 people in Australia are living with a spinal cord injury – 80% of them are male.

Professor Blazevich said the ECU study also had potential application for people with brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and stroke – “anyone who might not be able to fully activate their muscles”.

Effects of Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation in People with Spinal Cord Injury’ was recently published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

This PhD research study was supported by a Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) Collaborative Research Program grant.

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