Spinal Cord Stimulation – Potential Game-Changer for Spinal Cord Injuries?

At Pacific Medical Law we have helped clients with spinal cord injuries that have been caused by, or worsened by, medical negligence.  Delayed diagnosis of spinal cord infections, delayed treatment of spinal cord compression or improper treatment of traumatic spinal cord injuries can all lead to life-altering injuries.

Sometimes, however, spinal cord injuries are caused by trauma alone, such as motor vehicle accidents. Ryan Straschnitzki is an example of that.  Ryan is a survivor of the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash who was paralyzed from the chest down. In early December 2019, he returned to his home in Airdrie, Alberta after spending five weeks in Thailand having a spinal cord stimulator implanted. Since his surgery, he is beginning to be able to move his legs and has seen slow but steady progress after having the surgery, stem cell injections, and intensive physiotherapy.  Ryan is hoping to make Canada’s national sled hockey team and play at the Paralympics.

Limited Approval in North America

Spinal cord stimulators are approved for use in Canada and the USA to treat chronic back pain, but not for treating spinal cord injuries, where they may play a role in improving mobility, as in Ryan’s case. 

There is also a potential role for spinal cord stimulators in improving blood pressure control in those with a spinal cord injury. Vancouver’s International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries (iCord), conducts research on various therapies, treatments, and surgeries that may help people with spinal cord injuries.  iCord reported on a BC man who suffered a spinal cord injury due to a diving accident and had a spinal cord stimulator implanted not to improve his mobility, but to improve cardiovascular function.  Prior to the procedure, Isaac Darrel, of Langley, BC, often felt light-headed, especially during transfers to and from his wheelchair or during exercise.  His blood pressure would drop dramatically, and he would sometimes blackout while sitting in his wheelchair. Now that he has the spinal cord stimulator, that no longer happens. He has also experienced increased sitting tolerance and improved bowel function.

Ongoing Research

There are no centers in Canada conducting further clinical studies on the use of spinal cord stimulators to improve blood pressure control, but studies are ongoing in the USA and Switzerland.

Research on the use of spinal-cord stimulators for the purpose of regaining mobility is underway in Minneapolis and is being conducted in collaboration with researchers from iCord and the University of Calgary. Dr. David Darrow is the chief resident of neurosurgery and a researcher at the University of Minnesota. He estimates that thousands of people have had spinal cord stimulator implants for relieving chronic pain, but only about 30 people in the US have had implants to restore mobility.  His team has the approval to conduct these surgeries on a research basis.

Not a Panacea

Although spinal cord stimulators hold promise to improve the lives of those with spinal cord injuries, they are not expected to be a panacea that will get people up and walking independently. And having an implant is not without risks. Some people with these implants have experienced unwanted electrical shocks and even burns. There is also the potential for infection, any time a surgical procedure is done.  Nonetheless, improvements in mobility that can assist in making transfers to and from a wheelchair, and improvements in blood pressure control and bowel and bladder function, have the potential to greatly improve the quality of life of those suffering from spinal cord injuries.

If you or a loved one has experienced life-altering injuries from a spinal cord injury that may have been caused by or worsened by, medical negligence, please contact us.  We would be happy to discuss your concerns and outline your options.

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Brenda Osmond


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