Superman’s therapy fights paralysis

By Lauran Neergaard The Associated Press

Vibrating tingles of electricity worm into the thin legs of paralyzed children, pulling at their muscles to pump up and down on a special bicycle.

It’s called electrical stimulation exercise therapy, and small but tantalizing studies suggest that this intense rehab just might help restore some function to people with spinal cord injuries, even if they were paralyzed long ago.

Desperate patients have sought this therapy since it was credited with helping the late Christopher Reeve regain the ability to feel human touch and move just a little, more than five years after a riding accident completely paralyzed the “Superman” star. Now scientists are putting the approach to a rigorous test – in a study with children that may begin to answer whether this sweat equity truly fuels recovery.

Patients “will do anything for a glimmer of hope,” cautions Dr. Randal Betz of Philadelphia’s Shriners Hospital for Children, which has a waiting list of 5- to 13-year-olds hoping to enter the study. “What’s appealing about the cycling is it’s not surgery, it’s not hurtful … Everybody is hopeful that it will also show improvement in neurologic function.”

The idea: Remaining nerves in the spine may be dormant, partially recovered after the injury but essentially asleep as the brain can no longer send “get moving” messages down to them. Using electricity to stimulate those nerves and cause certain patterns of motion may teach them to carry signals locally, maybe even route new connections around the injury.

It’s controversial. Doctors have long thought that if the body repairs itself after a spinal cord injury – which does sometimes happen – any improvement will occur in the first six months, and that there’s no hope for further recovery beyond about 18 months. The paralysis sparks a slide into declining health from inactivity: infections, thinning and breaking bones, heart disease as muscles wither and fat accumulates.

“We have to maintain the nervous system,” contends Dr. John W. McDonald of Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, Reeve’s former doctor and the exercise therapy’s leading proponent. “Adding activity can optimize regeneration. What’s good activity? We don’t know yet.”

But he’s sending patients home, 200 so far, with special exercise bicycles hooked up to functional electrical stimulation, or FES, systems – sticky pads that deliver little electrical jolts to muscles through the skin, stimulating their legs to push the pedals. He’s persuading insurance companies to pay for the $15,000 bikes by arguing this aerobic-style, muscle-resistant exercise should lower medical bills by keeping the paralyzed healthier.