Nerve-Transfer Operation Allows Nine Quadriplegics to Move Their Arms and Hands Again
A pioneering nerve-transfer operation has allowed several paralysed patients to move their hands and arms again. So far nine patients have benefitted from the new surgical technique.
The nine quadriplegics, immobilised by spinal cord injuries, were treated in a Washington University trial. The operation involves connecting working nerves to the patient’s damaged nerves in their arms and hands, and usually takes around four hours. After the surgery, patients undergo extensive physical therapy to train the brain to recognise the new nerve signals – a process which can take between six and eighteen months.
So far, all patients who have received the surgery have reported improved hand and arm function – even those who had the operation years after their spinal cord injury.
“Physically, nerve-transfer surgery provides incremental improvements in hand and arm function,” says Dr Ida Fox, lead author of the study involving these patients. “However, psychologically, these small steps are huge for a patient’s quality of life. One of my patients told me he was able to pick up a noodle off his chest when he dropped it. Before the surgery he couldn’t move his fingers. It meant a lot for him to clean off that noodle without anyone helping him.”
Dr Fox says that one of the most positive effects of the surgery is that it has the potential to restore patients’ ability to manage their own bladder and bowel functions.
“People with spinal cord injuries cannot control those functions because their brains can’t talk to the nerves in the lower body, and they often can’t feel the need to go to the bathroom,” she explains. “Patients often can’t insert a catheter to empty their bladders or insert a suppository for bowel movement and have to rely on help from a caregiver. But after this surgery, one of my patients was able to independently catheterise himself, which he hadn’t been able to do since his accident over a decade ago. This boost in privacy and personal space restores a significant amount of dignity.”
Ultimately, the aim of medical research in this area is to discover a way to restore full movement to those living with spinal cord injuries. For now, however, progress which gives patients back even a small part of their independence can hugely improve their quality of life.