Contact: Rachel Seroka
American Academy of Neurology
Researchers discover promising new treatment to help people with
spine injuries walk better
MINNEAPOLIS – Scientists may have found a new treatment that can
help people with spinal cord injuries walk better. The research is
published in the November 27, 2013, online issue of Neurology®, the
medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
“About 59 percent of all spinal injuries are incomplete, leaving
pathways that could allow the spinal cord to change in a way that
allows people to walk again. Unfortunately, usually a person
affected by this type of spinal injury seldom recovers the ability
to walk normally,” said study author Randy D. Trumbower, PT, PhD,
with Emory University in Atlanta. “Our research proposes a
promising new way for the spinal cord to make the connections
needed to walk better.”
The research involved 19 people with spine injuries between levels
C2 and T12, no joint shortening, some controlled ankle, knee, and
hip movements, and the ability to walk at least one step without
human assistance. Research team members were based at Emory
University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Shepherd Center in
Atlanta, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and the University
of Wisconsin, Madison.
The participants were exposed to short periods of breathing low
oxygen levels, which is called hypoxia. The participants breathed
through a mask for about 40 minutes a day for five days, receiving
90-second periods of low oxygen levels followed by 60 seconds of
normal oxygen levels. The participants’ walking speed and endurance
was tested before the study started, on the first and fifth days of
treatment, and again one and two weeks after the treatment ended.
The participants were divided into two groups. In one, nine people
received either the treatment or a sham treatment where they
received only normal oxygen levels. Then two weeks later they
received the other treatment. In the other group, the participants
received the treatment or sham treatment and then were asked to
walk as fast as they could for 30 minutes within one hour of the
treatment, then received the other treatment two weeks later.
Those who received just the hypoxia treatment increased their
walking speed on a test of walking 10 meters, walking an average of
3.8 seconds faster than when they did not receive the treatment.
Those who had the treatment plus walking increased their endurance
on a test of how far they could walk in six minutes by an average
of 100 meters, which was more than a 250-percent increase compared
to those who had the sham treatment plus walking.
All participants improved their ability to walk. More than 30
percent of all participants increased their walking speed by at
least a tenth of a meter per second and more than 70 percent
increased their endurance by at least 50 meters.
“One question this research brings to light is how a treatment that
requires people to take in low levels of oxygen can help movement,
let alone in those with compromised lung function and motor
abilities,” said Michael G. Fehlings, MD, PhD, with the University
of Toronto in Canada, who wrote a corresponding editorial on the
study. “A possible answer is that spinal serotonin, a
neurotransmitter, sets off a cascade of changes in proteins that
help restore connections in the spine.”
Trumbower cautions that chronic or sustained hypoxia in untrained
hands may cause serious injury and should not be attempted outside
the scope of a supervised medical treatment.
The study was supported by the U.S. Department of Defense Spinal
Cord Injury Research Program.
To learn more about spinal cord injury, please visit
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promoting the highest quality patient-centered neurologic care. A
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