Pioneering new surgery has allowed paralysed people’s bodies to be “rewired”, restoring movement to their arms and hands. Australian surgeons who carried out the first of these operations says that patients can now perform many essential daily functions, such as feeding themselves, opening doors and using a computer. Although the procedure can’t yet restore 100% normal functioning, the ability to perform these tasks is life changing for patients.
Paralysis is caused when an injury to the spinal cord stops messages getting from the brain to the rest of the body. The procedure works by cutting the functioning nerves leading from the spinal cord then rewiring them to nerves that control other muscles. For example, nerves that once turned the palm upwards could be used to extend all the fingers in the hand. So now, when a patient thinks of rotating their hand, their fingers extend.
Paul Robinson was one of the patients who took part in the trial. In 2015 he had his nerves rewired, before beginning the long process of recovery and physiotherapy to relearn how to move his hands and arms. In a recent interview for the BBC he said: “I recently moved into my own house and am living independently, I never thought it would be possible to live on my own. It’s made a huge difference in my life – being able to cut up food, hold normal cutlery and use a pen to write at university.”
As the current procedure focuses on restoring use to the arms, it isn’t suitable for treating all kinds of paralysis patients, and is also dependent on the type of injury sustained. However, research says up to 250,000 people around the world have spinal cord injuries that result in paralysis each year. This means a large group of people could potentially benefit from the surgery.
In the UK, recent reforms to the NHS aim to introduce more GPs and specialist care professionals into the service. It’s believed that by boosting NHS staffing there will be more time for developing preventative treatments, individualised treatment plans for patient and innovative new surgical techniques. To read more about the challenges and changes facing the NHS, read our article here.
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