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Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen’s recovery from a spinal cord injury, including the use of a new high-tech “exoskeleton” that has enabled her to walk again, spotlights how broad, rapid advances in paralysis treatments are allowing patients to regain their independence and live on their own.
Remote-controlled exoskeletons are just one of several new biomedical developments that are helping paralysis patients stand and move without the use of wheelchairs. Microchips implanted in paraplegics’ brains are allowing them to reclaim the use their arms and hands. New neurological devices are helping quadriplegics operate “bionic limbs” using only their thoughts. And new developments in stem cell research and the regrowth of nerve cells are offering new hope to the hundreds of thousands of American patients paralyzed by accidents and illnesses.
Allyson Shrikhande, M.D., a spinal cord injury specialist, tells Newsmax Health that Van Dyken-Rouen’s decision to go public with her inspiring experience spotlights the progress being made in the field.
“Amy’s story is amazing,” says Dr. Shrikhande, in an interview on Newsmax TV’s Meet the Doctors program. “And her dedication as an athlete and her athleticism has really allowed her to progress much more quickly than the average American would.”
Psychotherapist Jeffrey Gardere, M,D., tells Newsmax Health the new advances are not only providing paralyzed individuals greater independence, but also a positive outlook for the future.
“What we see with a lot of these new innovations is it gives a lot of hope to these patients,” he says.
“So it’s important that they’re able to … have the freedom to take care of themselves and not only rely on other people….
“It’s about being a complete human being even if parts of your body are not working as they once were. And that is the battle and that’s where they win because they know that they can be respected as a whole person again and see themselves as a whole person.”
Van Dyken-Rouen, 41, severed her spine in a June 6 all-terrain vehicle crash. But she recently began walking again, thanks to a specialized exoskeleton device called Indego. She told reporters last month that she began using it as part of a Food and Drug Administration study that its manufacturers hope will lead federal approval for wider use.
The six-time Olympic gold medalist says she has come a long way since being brought to the hospital on a stretcher after her accident, paralyzed from the waist down.
Since she began using the device, which she operates with hand controls that help her stand and walk, she has learned to dress herself and pick up things up from the floor. She has also gone boating and kayaking.
Throughout her ordeal, she has shared her experiences via social media.
“What a day,” she tweeted recently. “Went swimming, then rode the hand bike for a while. I’ve done a duathalon today. Is that a Paralympic sport? Lol #Imkidding.”
Dr. Shrikhande notes that an exoskeleton, like the device Van Dyken-Rouen is using, is designed for people who still retain use of their arms.
“For patients who have incomplete spinal cord injuries and have a strong prognosis and chance of recovery,” she says. “It helps teach them to walk again, it really teaches their nerves … [and] stimulates the neurons and really teaches them [how] to walk again.”
Exoskeletons are just one of the many developments designed to help the estimated 250,000 Americans who are either paraplegic (paralyzed below the waist), or quadriplegic (without the ability to move their arms or legs). Most cases are due to an injury to the brain or spinal cord from an accident, a fall, a sports injury, violence, or a disease that affects mobility.
Nearly 40 percent of all injuries that leave people with at least some paralysis are due to car accidents, but a growing proportion are tied to violent acts, which now account for nearly one in three of the 11,000 new spinal cord injuries reported each year, federal health statistics show.
In most cases, treatment involves physical therapy to maximize mobility, which is critical right after an injury. Many individuals are able to regain at least some movement with therapy. But for those who don’t benefit from therapy, a number of new treatments are under development.
For instance, earlier this year Ohio state researchers implanted a first-of-its-kind microchip in the brain of a young man who was paralyzed in a diving accident that essentially allowed him to move his fingers and hand using only his thoughts.
The so-called Neurobridge chip decodes the user’s brain activity and uses a high-tech muscle stimulation sleeve to translate impulses from the brain into movement in the paralyzed limb. The technology has been in the works for nearly a decade.
Scientists are also working on materials that can interact with human nerves and tissues that could eventually lead to prosthetics that are fused with the body and controlled directly by the nervous system or the user’s own thoughts.
In addition to these technological developments, medical researchers are testing a variety of new treatments that involve regrowing spinal cord tissues and nerve cells, as well as new adult stem cell techniques that hold a great deal of promise.
“It’s very exciting,” says Dr. Shrikhande, of the new technologies under development. “And I think the hope is that [they] can complement the traditional therapies that we’ve been doing for 20 plus years and then also complement the research that’s going on with stem cells so everything will work together.”
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