FES cycling improves recovery in patients with spinal cord injuries

Long-term lower extremity functional electrical stimulation (FES) cycling used as part of a patient’s rehabilitation therapy was associated with physical and neurological improvements for patients with chronic spinal cord injury, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine.

The retrospective analysis, conducted by researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, included 45 patients diagnosed with chronic spinal cord injury, defined as paralysis lasting for more than 16 months following injury. Twenty-five patients were assigned to the FES cycle group, where FES stimulation prompted the participant to cycle on an adapted stationary recumbent bicycle. They were then matched by age, gender, injury level/severity and duration of injury to 20 control patients who received no active physical therapy.

The study group performed FES cycling for an average of 29.5 months. Improved motor function was observed in 80% of the FES group compared with only 45% of the control group. Results also showed that FES cycling enhanced muscle strength without increasing spasticity. The researchers observed gains in neurological function and higher response to touch tests in the FES group, as well as enhanced physical health resulting from decreased fat, increased muscle mass and improved lipid profiles. All of these gains correlated to an improved quality of life in the FES group.

“Exercise has not been commonly advocated for individuals with paralysis because of the assumption that it is of little benefit, and it is challenging to exercise limbs that an individual cannot voluntarily move,” John W. McDonald, MD, PhD, senior study author and director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, stated in a news release. “However, we found that FES cycling is a practical form of exercise that provides substantial benefits, including improved physical integrity, enhanced neurological and functional performance, increased muscle size and strength, reduced muscle spasticity and improved quality of life.”

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