A disabled man sitting in his wheelchair, in a coffee shop cafe.

Spinal Cord

Hope for the injured

Back to the future

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 Professor in Biomechanics Tony Blazevich from ECU's School of Medical & Health Sciences 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 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'."

10,000: The number of Australians with spinal cord injury.
12 weeks: Duration of high intensity sessions.

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.

"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.

Symptoms of spasticity were significantly reduced, muscle strength improved and there was also an improvement in cholesterol levels.

"Our study was a clear example of how the use of high-intensity muscle strength training-electrical stimulation in the legs of people with spinal cord injury 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 per cent 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 published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

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