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New type of workout helps paralyzed patients

April 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Every year, 11,000 people hear they may never walk again, and the majority of them are in the prime of their lives. One young paraplegic who's changing that prognosis is helping others do the same, not through a new drug or surgery, but through a new type of workout called "locomotor" training.Last year, Frank Alioto got married in Mexico. Hours later, the happiest day turned tragic.

"I dove into a pool to be with my wife, and I hit the bottom or the side, we're not sure which, and I broke my neck," said Alioto.

Frank is finding help and hope in a new gym -- designed specifically for him.

"When I was first injured, I was told that I would have very limited arm movement, no hand movement and no leg movement," said Alioto.

"Next Step" is Janne Kouri 's creation. The former college athlete and rock climber was paralyzed four years ago while swimming in the ocean. He knew exercise would keep him healthy -- possibly help him move again -- but there was nowhere to go.

"There are thousands of gyms for able-bodied people, so there should be at least one facility in every community that people with spinal cord injuries or other disabilities have access to," said Janne Kouri, president and founder of Next Step Fitness.

It's one of only eight places in the country that offer loco-motor training. People are held up by harnesses, while therapists move their feet and legs.

Doctors say the repetitive motion could retrain the brain and spinal cord to communicate again. Studies show loco-motor training has helped some patients walk on their own again.

"The capability to step remains in the spinal cord after a severe injury," said neurobiologist and exercise physiologist Reggie Edgerton, Ph.D.

Two years of loco-motor training helped Kouri take his first steps. "There's no magic pill today, and people should not just sit down and wait for that," he said.

Grants, donations and funding from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation help support the gym and allow Kouri to offer affordable memberships for around $50 a month. Kouri wants to open facilities across the country.

Web Extra Information:

PARAPLEGICS:

Paraplegia is defined as the paralysis by motor or sensory loss in lower limbs and the trunk of the body. There are about 11,000 spinal cord injuries reported each year in the United States that involve paraplegia. Some of the most common causes of paraplegia are car accidents or motorcycle accidents, sporting accidents, gunshot wounds and falls. Some signs of paraplegia are loss of sensation, motion and reflexes in the limbs or trunk; loss of bladder control; and sexual dysfunction.

At the scene of an accident, the spinal cord should not be moved until stabilized on a board. This stabilization helps prevent permanent damage and can restore proper spine alignment. Baclofen, a drug that relieves muscle spasms, can be also be taken on the scene to limit dysfunction of the upper motor neurons.

LOCOMOTOR TRAINING:

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, are testing a new therapy that may give paraplegics a second chance at walking. The Human Locomotion or Locomotor training uses weight support on a treadmill and manual assistance to rehabilitate the recovery of patients who have spinal cord injuries. Locomotor training is based on providing appropriate sensory information to the neuronal circuits in the spinal cord.

The success of this approach is based on showing sensory cues to the spinal cord through simulating the kinetics of walking. Patients are put on a treadmill while being suspended in a harness by a cable to eliminate a knee buckle or trunk collapse. Trainers surround each patient and promote knee extension, knee flexion and toe clearance. Researchers believe that repetitive locomotor training can promote spinal learning and strengthen the neural circuitry responsible for locomotion.


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