Loss of mobility due to injury is a devastating reality for many individuals. This is especially true for those who have experienced damage to their spinal cords. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every year, between 2,500,000 to 500,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries, mostly due to vehicle crashes, falls or other accidents. Furthermore, the WHO indicates that these individuals are two to five times more likely to die before people without spinal cord injuries. Unfortunately, no treatment has been available to reverse the loss of mobility that these patients, until recently.
Epidural stimulation is an experimental therapy that has the potential to help individuals with spinal cord injuries, including paraplegics and tetraplegics, to regain movement and control that had been lost. It involves implanting a small device over the protective coating of the spinal cord. This device produces electrical currents to the lower part of the spinal cord that otherwise was not able to communicate with the upper spinal cord. These electrical currents are regulated by a remote control that is able to modify the electrical current. Combined with physiotherapy, patients can be trained to regain movement in their legs. This is currently the best technology for spinal cord injuries. In addition to movement, there is the potential for patients to regain other functions, such as bladder control, body temperature regulation, sexual function and muscle control.
Results of the surgery and device implantation have so far been positive. Patients who have had the experimental procedure have regained movement in their legs and experienced other improvements. For instance, one recipient of the surgery was able to bend his knees only two days after having the epidural stimulator implanted, while another patient was able to take steps on a treadmill, as reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Medicine.
Currently, this procedure is carried out in countries including the US and Switzerland. However, the cost of the surgery in these markets can exceed $100,000, so some patients choose to undergo the procedure in countries such as Thailand, where the costs are much lower.