Breathing treatments that
provide low levels of oxygen may help people with certain types of spinal cord
injuries walk longer distances at faster speeds, new Canadian research
After the low-oxygen
treatment, people with less severe spinal cord injuries were able to walk
approximately 33 feet about four seconds faster than those on a placebo
treatment. They also were able to increase the distance they could walk in six
minutes by about 328 feet.
world after a spinal cord injury can be frustrating and limited," said
study author Randy Trumbower, an assistant professor in the division of
physical therapy at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
"After the first year, it's a lifelong journey to overcome their
diagnosis. Someone may be able to cross the street right now, but can they do
it in enough time? Or someone might be able to get to the grocery store, but do
they have the endurance to shop?"
"We wanted to find a
treatment that could provide incremental changes for those with incomplete
spinal cord injuries to allow them to do these things," Trumbower said.
Results of the study were
published online in the journal Neurology.
Almost two-thirds of spinal
cord injuries are what is known as incomplete, according to background
information in the study. This means some nerve connections are still intact.
They may not function as they used to, but they are not completely severed.
Because some connections
remain, someone with an incomplete spinal injury may still be able to walk, but
not in the same way they could before the injury. People with incomplete
injuries often have to rely on canes, braces and wheelchairs to get around.
Previous research with
animals has shown that brief exposure to low levels of oxygen can help the
animals walk better, Trumbower said. The oxygen treatment causes a number of
changes, such as a release of serotonin, a brain chemical that helps transmit
messages from one nerve cell to another.
Low oxygen levels also cause
the release of a growth factor that's known to help repair nerves and improve
their plasticity, said Dr Michael Fehlings, the co-author of an editorial
accompanying the study.
The current study was
designed to see if brief periods of low oxygen could induce these types of
reactions in humans.
Nineteen people with
incomplete spinal cord injuries participated in the study. Everyone could walk
at least one step without assistance from another person.
The volunteers were placed
into one of two groups. One group would receive the intermittent low-oxygen
treatment and the other would receive a sham treatment. Two weeks later, the
groups switched treatments.
People who got the oxygen
treatment improved their walking speed by 3.8 seconds over 33 feet compared to
those given the placebo treatment. They also were able to walk about 328 feet
farther in a period of six minutes than those who were treated with the sham
treatment] may be strengthening the connections or improving how the
connections behave," Trumbower said. "The effect of coupling hypoxia
with traditional healing techniques was greater than each of its individual
parts. Combining the therapies seems to amplify the effects of a single
"[This was] a small
but well-designed [study] that showed people with a relatively mild form of
spinal cord injury can have some recovery with [low-oxygen treatment],"
said Fehlings, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto.
"But there's still a lot of work to be done. How long will these effects
last? Will the treatment need to be constantly administered? Would that cause
Fehlings said this study
also doesn't address whether people with more severe injuries could benefit
from this type of therapy.
Learn more about spinal
cord injuries from the US
National Library of Medicine.