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Electronic Muscle-Stimulation Device Helps Patients Learn to Walk Again
04/07/2008

PLANO, Texas - A year ago, Emily Bowers couldn't walk from the parking lot to her office without the aid of an electric scooter. She no longer went on shopping trips with her sister or to the theater with girlfriends. Nor could she traverse the stairs to her nieces' second-floor bedrooms to play dolls with them.

On March 29, however, the 33-year-old with multiple sclerosis (MS) successfully finished the annual one-mile "Walk MS" without the aid of her scooter or her cane - tools on which she has become more and more dependent during the past 10 years.

Thanks to a new electronic muscle-stimulation device and the rehabilitation specialists at Presbyterian Hospital of Plano, Bowers is walking again and resuming activities that she believed would be impossible in her future.

"I felt as though I had no quality of life," Bowers said. "At 33, who wants to be on a walker or cane all the time? But all that has changed, and so has my outlook on life. I'm going to the mall, the grocery store and the movies - places I haven't been to in almost two years."

The electronic device delivers electronic impulses to lower-leg muscles to help people who have had a stroke, head-injury or neurological disorder, such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, learn to walk again. The device uses wireless communication to "talk" to its components, eliminating cumbersome wires and allowing therapists the ability to adjust settings while the patient is walking.

"The first time I put it on I was amazed," Bowers said. "I never thought I would be able to walk like a normal person again."

Physical therapists at Presbyterian Hospital of Plano (PHP) were among some of the first in Texas to be trained to use the device and offer it to patients. They have successfully fit the device to about 40 patients since last summer.

"The primary purpose of the device is for foot drop," said Angela Williams, a physical therapist at Presbyterian Hospital of Plano. "Many people with MS have progressive weakening and may have difficulty picking up their leg and foot when they walk. When a person walks with the device on, the foot sensor detects each step and is programmed specifically for that patient's needs to pick the foot up the right amount and at the right time."

Patients with brain injuries or strokes often have similar problems with foot drop. They often drag the foot or can't raise it at all, which increases the risk of falls and limits mobility. Weakness in lower leg muscles from brain injuries also causes imbalance when standing.

The device uses a series of electrical impulses, delivered while the patient takes a step, to stimulate the leg muscles. A similar device is used to help patients regain control of hand muscles, which also can be damaged from strokes and head injuries.

During walking therapy, a physical therapist programs the device by remote-control, helping the patient raise their foot at the right moment. A tiny computer inside a sensor under the patient's foot detects pressure changes and where the patient is bearing their weight. The information helps the computer system automatically adjust the duration and strength of each electric impulse.

Once the device has been programmed for the patient's specific walking pattern, it can be used during any daily activity that requires the patient to walk. 

For Bowers, the device has proved life-changing. She was fitted with it last fall, using it during physical therapy visits at PHP. In February, she began using the device on a daily basis away from the hospital, training for the MS walk.

"Using the device all day every day has made an incredible difference," Bowers said. "As soon as I put it on, I don't use my cane at all. My endurance has improved dramatically, and the muscle tone in my legs has changed drastically.

"And I'm walking faster and faster," she said. "Now sometimes I have to be reminded to slow down!'

PHP's Williams says Bowers' progress has been "remarkable."

"She has improved substantially in her leg strength and on a standardized balance test we used prior to taking the device home and four weeks after wearing them daily," Williams said. "Emily now has the freedom and ability to walk around her house consistently and for periods of time in the community, as well, without a cane, whereas previously she used her scooter for primary mobility when outside her home.

"As a therapist, being able to provide patients with a device like this that promotes faster recovery rates is very rewarding," she said.

About Presbyterian Hospital of Plano
Established in 1991, PHP is a member of the faith-based, nonprofit Texas Health Resources. PHP is a recognized clinical program leader, providing technologically advanced care to patients. Key services offered include orthopedics, cardiovascular, oncology, pediatrics and women's services. The 370-bed facility has more than 1,600 employees and a medical staff of 1,200 physicians. For more information about PHP, visit http://www.phscare.org/.

About Texas Health Resources
Texas Health Resources is one of the largest faith-based, nonprofit health care delivery systems in the United States and the largest in North Texas in terms of patients served. THR controls 13 affiliated hospitals and a medical research organization, and is a corporate member or partner in seven additional hospitals and surgery centers. THR's family of hospitals includes Harris Methodist Hospitals, Arlington Memorial Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare System. For more information about Texas Health Resources, visit http://www.texashealth.org/.

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Contact:
Donna Steph Hansard
972-981-8532
DonnaHansard@TexasHealth.org

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