Best Life: Restoring movement for paraplegics

Published: Dec. 3, 2021 at 8:02 AM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — More than 5,000 people in the U.S. become paralyzed from the neck down each year due to a spinal cord injury. The first six to 12 months after the injury are critical. The movement gained during this time is usually all the movement they will regain for the rest of their lives. But now, neurosurgeons are giving new hope to patients.

Andy Hellrich has been confined to a wheelchair for five years. He vividly remembers the day he walked into a chiropractor’s office and never walked again.

“And then after they manipulated my neck, I took four steps away from the adjustable table. And then I sat down in the chair,” Hellrich explains.

His C5 and C6 vertebrae were broken.

“As of today, I have no feeling from the chest to the toes,” said Hellrich.

Two years after his injury, a team of researchers at Washington University’s School of Medicine performed a nerve transfer on Andy’s left hand to give him more movement.

“Nerve transfer is rerouting a less critical function to an area of more critical function,” said Wilson Z Ray, MD.

Typically taking nerves from larger muscles like the biceps or elbow and tricep flexors. Surgeons attach the nerve from above the site of injury to nerves below the site of injury that connect to muscles in the hands and arms.

“With a spinal cord injury, effectively there’s a conduction block at that area of injury,” said Ray. “The signals are no longer getting through there, but it doesn’t mean the muscles and nerves aren’t still connected to the spinal cord. And that’s what we’re taking advantage of.”

“I have a better range of motion in the hand, and I can open it up. If you see this hand, I can go like this and close it. And if you look at this hand, I can only do about this much,” said Hellrich.

And with time and more therapy Hellrich hopes he’ll see even more improvement.

Doctors say the best candidates have suffered spinal cord injuries in their necks and are at least six months out from their injury. Recently surgeons have even performed the nerve transfer on a patient who has been paralyzed for 30 years.

Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer; Roque Correa, Editor.

Copyright 2021 WMC. All rights reserved.

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