Spinal cord injury technology

Technology and Spinal Cord Injuries

One of the major improvements for spinal cord injury patients in recent years has been how technology is being used to make their life easier. Head back just 50 years and there was little if no help or prospect for injuries of this kind beyond a rickety old wheelchair.

It’s not just advancements in medical technology that have made a big impact on quality of life either. Relatively minor developments such a mobile phone applications are being used to help with day to day living and have certainly made a huge difference to wellbeing.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, we have the exciting prospect of many new medical technologies, including exoskeletons that can help restore movement in paralysed individuals. There are also exciting spinal cord injury treatment options centred around technology that have delivered very promising results, such as epidural stimulation.

Here we’ll take a look at three exciting technological developments that are having a positive impact for spinal cord injury patients. These innovations show how important research and development is in this area.

1. Mobile Applications

Spinal cord injury mobile applications

Digital health tools are becoming a lot more prevalent and are helping people with a variety of conditions to successfully manage their day to day living. A significant focus in recent years has been the development of apps that have a real impact on individuals and those who provide care.

Here are just a few that have caught our eye:

  • SCI Health Storylines: This was developed by a Canadian team and is intended to help spinal cord injury patients record their moods, symptoms and medication, keep track of appointments and connect with support. It’s a feedback system that is all about taking back control after a serious injury.
  • Wheelmate: This has a lot of practical applications for individuals who travel around the US or even overseas. While many cities are becoming increasingly wheelchair friendly, it always helps to have a resource that offers useful information about how accessible specific areas are.
  • HabiTimer: While not specifically designed for SCI patients, this app is great for setting alarms if someone needs to complete tasks at certain times such as taking pills or needs regular positioning to reduce pressure sores.

2. Exoskeletons

Spinal cord injury patient walking with help of exoskeleton

For those who remember the 6 Million Dollar Man, it’s easy to get excited by the idea of robotic suits and wearable technology that enable SCI patients to get up and move around.

Companies like Ekso Bionics have been producing exoskeletons for the last decade or more. Their first prototype involved a fairly weighty battery pack that was worn on the back but recently the size and weight of their products have been dramatically reduced. It’s very early days for this kind of technology, but recent advancements are looking increasingly positive for spinal cord injury patients.

We are already seeing these kinds of devices coming onto the market and earning FDA approval. While there is still some way to go until they are truly portable and lightweight, products such as the Rewalk Personal 6.0 and EksoGT are already available to buy. The trouble is they currently cost in the region of $80,000. Expect that cost to come down over the next few years as the technology improves and market competition increases.

3. Epidural Stimulation

Even more remarkable when it comes to advancements in medical technology is epidural stimulation, a treatment procedure which has already yielded great results by those who have received it.

Epidural stimulation involves implanting a neurotransmitter beneath the skin over the dura or coating of the spinal cord where the damage has occurred. The device can transmit electrical signals beyond the point of injury, allowing for the possibility of the patient to make voluntary movements that were previously impossible following their injury.

Reactivating the spinal circuits in this way takes a lot of practice on behalf of the patient but the results have been encouraging so far. The good news is that this kind of device can be used with both incomplete and complete injuries.

It’s not just the possibility of improving the ability to move that has proved exciting when it comes to epidural stimulation. Sending nerve impulses can help with autonomic responses such as controlling blood pressure and bowel and bladder issues.

In the future, we may see highly complex systems that help people with spinal cord injuries maintain their health and move without the aid of an exoskeleton or wheelchair.

The Future is Bright

A spinal cord injury is currently medically irreversible and it’s no surprise that much of the research and development to date has involved technology that looks to improve mobility and life experience.

Could we soon see exoskeletons or epidural stimulation devices that will restore full movement in SCI patients? While the future is uncertain, it’s certainly looking promising.