Giving quadriplegics a hand

Thanks to a new surgical technique, people paralyzed from the neck down are regaining use of their hands and arms. But, unlike other procedures that implant electrodes in muscles and brains, surgeons at the Washington University of Medicine are using nothing other than the body’s own parts.

Paralysis results when nerves become disconnected from the rest of the neural network. These surgeons route working nerves resting above the injured portion of the spinal cord around the neural break – and connect them to the formerly isolated nerves. Once the pathway between the brain and nerves in the arm and hand is restored, a degree of normal function can return.

Although the surgery takes only about four hours, a patient requires from six to 18 months of physical therapy to learn to operate the new neural pathway.

It’s worth it. People who were helpless now can feed themselves, write with a pen, use the controls of a motorized wheelchair, and even drive a van. Many become able to manage their catheters, restoring a crucial degree of dignity and privacy. Although the degree of motion may be small, the significance to the person’s quality of life is vast.

TRENDPOST: Advances in microsurgery are enabling physicians to work at scales that promise to eventually make routine restorative procedures that seemed impossible. The work at Washington is a key step along the path to the ultimate goal – curing paralysis. 


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