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Water works on paralysis

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MTSU research brings amazing results

As miracles go, it’s not quite walking on water. But for paralyzed volunteers taking part in an MTSU study, walking in water is almost as amazing.

For the past eight weeks, university researchers have placed people with crippling spinal cord injuries on underwater treadmills — with impressive results.

“I’ve been able to lift my right leg,” said Janette Rodgers, a 52-year-old grandmother from Murfreesboro whose neck was crushed in a car accident in 2007. After four weeks in the study, “I’m walking faster. I used to walk like I was somebody in their 80s.”

Three times a week, volunteer James Harris wheels his chair up to a water-filled tank fitted with an underwater treadmill and maneuvers inside.

As his feet touch bottom, an underwater treadmill kicks into gear and suddenly Harris — who hasn’t been able to will his feet to move since an accident that severed his spine — is walking.

“In a way, it’s a small miracle,” said Harris, a 56-year-old engineer from Hendersonville who was paralyzed from the waist down by the crash of the small plane he was piloting in July 2005.

“You can’t feel your feet, so it still feels like it’s not really you walking,” said Harris, breathing hard and balancing himself against walls of the tank as his legs churned away below the surface.

But he really is walking. The water in the tank helps to support his weight, but the rest is all the work of Harris and his nervous system, working in ways that amaze even the scientist running the experiment.

“They’re walking faster, their endurance is better, their aerobic fitness is up, it’s just a better quality of life,” said researcher Sandy Stevens, who is working toward her doctorate in human performance at MTSU. To the best of her knowledge, it’s the only study of its kind in the country.

Recently, Stevens said, one of her volunteers placed a call from the parking lot after his session.

“He said, ‘I’ve never had to ask this question before, but did I leave my crutches in the lab?'” Stevens said.

The staff hunted around and found the crutches leaning against the wall near the tank, forgotten. Two months of workouts had improved his balance and muscle tone to the point he didn’t even notice he was walking unassisted.

Primal-reflex theory

Scientists theorize that walking is hard-wired into humans — not in the brain, but in the spinal cord itself.

If you take a tiny baby and hold it upright so its feet touch the floor, the baby’s legs will spontaneously begin “walking,” even though it hasn’t yet developed the muscle tone or motor control to really walk.

So it appears that, even when the connection to the brain is disrupted by a spinal cord injury, people can relearn to walk by tapping into that primal step reflex.

Traditional treadmill therapies for people with spinal cord injuries involve hoisting the patient in a sling over a conventional treadmill while two therapists manually move his or her legs to simulate walking. It’s not a terribly comfortable or effective treatment for most people.

Stevens, who has spent years working with aquatic therapy, decided to see what would happen if she tried the same thing in water, without a harness or anyone moving the volunteers’ feet but the volunteers themselves.

“In water, everything’s buoyant. They don’t have to worry about falling and hurting themselves; they can go as slowly as they want to,” she said. “Before they know it, they’re getting stronger and can support themselves on land.”

“I just feel better,” said Harris, who found that his stints in the water tank have improved his balance; strengthened his muscles, circulatory system and organ function; and dulled the chronic pain he suffers from his damaged nerves.

After his accident, when he was still in the hospital, completely paralyzed from the waist down, Harris asked his doctor what the odds were that he’d ever walk again.

“At your age? Slim and none,” was the doctor’s brusque prediction.

The first time he stepped on the treadmill, Harris could barely walk for a minute at a stretch, even at the lowest speed setting. Even then, his feet tangled. This week, his workout had him walking for nine minutes at a brisk stroll, resting for five and then repeating the cycle.

Cerebral palsy help

MTSU has done a similar aquatic treadmill study on children with cerebral palsy, with similarly promising results. Don Morgan, director of MTSU’s Center for Physical Activity and Health in Youth, saw children who had to be carried into the room at the start of the study improve to the point they could run out of it afterward.

“Parents would tell me, ‘My child can run now. My child can keep up when she plays now,'” Morgan said. “That’s the power of physical activity.”

After just 12 rounds on the underwater treadmill, Rodgers found she no longer needed a step stool to get into her car. That she’s walking at all is amazing enough, considering that the initial accident left her paralyzed from the neck down. These new improvements, she said, give her new hope that the dreams placed on hold by the accident — traveling with her husband, walking into the Opry unassisted to see a show — are going to happen.

“Some people give up too soon,” said Rodgers, who has been holding onto the hope of the Opry visit since the accident itself.

By an odd twist of fate, country star Marty Stuart was in the car behind her when her car was rammed and flipped by an out-of-control vehicle in the oncoming lane. The singer comforted her 4-year-old granddaughter at the scene and later promised Rodgers tickets to a show, whenever she felt ready.

She’s not ready to walk all that way on her own two feet yet, she said. But she’s getting closer.

MTSU is looking for additional volunteers for its spinal cord study.

The ideal candidate is someone who can bear his or her own weight for short distances — say, the one step it takes to move from a wheelchair to a bed. Because the MTSU study is unfunded, participants also need to be able to provide their own transportation to Murfreesboro as many as three times a week.

So far, the program has seven participants. Stevens is hoping to include data for at least 10 before the project ends next year.

For more information call Sandy Stevens at 615-963-7490



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