The Latest Advances in Technology for People with Spinal Cord Injury

A special issue of The Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine, published by Maney Publishing, 2b cooper coverexamines various advances made in technology to aid people with spinal cord injury (SCI).

Scientists from all over the world contributed to the special issue, focusing on five areas: advances in wheelchair technology; wheelchair sports; personal health and safety; innovations in rehabilitation; and closing the gaps in education and employment.

The studies also incorporate the views of the end-users that have participated throughout the research design and development of the new technologies. These advances are empowering those with SCI and enabling them to lead fuller and more active lives, as everyday activities become easier and more accessible. One year after injury, 12% of people with SCI are now employed.

The issue is guest edited by McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member Rory Cooper, PhD, a member of the journal’s Editorial Board. Dr. Cooper serves as Engineering Director of the University of Pittsburgh SCI Model System. His commentary, “Technology, trends, and the future for people with spinal cord injury,” is available for free download, in which he comments: “Ideally, in the future, we will see more teams of scientists, engineers, and clinicians that include people with and without SCI working together to conduct pioneering research, to create transformational technology, and to establish model clinical programs. Assuredly, technology will play a major role to make this vision of the future become reality.”

Applying technology to rehabilitation is helping to restore the abilities to use arms and legs immobilized by spinal cord injury, as well as to control bladder function. Neuroprostheses are devices that use electrodes to deliver electrical stimulation to areas where function has been lost due to injury. They offer tremendous potential for restoring motor, sensory and bladder function in people with SCI. Virtual reality is being utilized in robotic exoskeletons such as ReWalk to enable those with SCI to stand and walk, and in the evaluation of wheelchair driving performance.

Activities like sports are benefiting from these advances too – a growing area, particularly following the 2012 Olympic Games. Equipment such as the hand cycle enables less stressful and more efficient upper body training to aid rehabilitation and boost overall health. GPS is being used to evaluate the details of wheelchair tennis play, enabling coaches to develop and monitor training regimens.

Other advances in wheelchair technology allow for superior use, such as the power wheelchair which is capable of climbing curbs and maneuvering around obstacles. However, a common problem faced by wheelchair users is increased exposure to vibration, which can damage muscles, nerves, and cause back pain. Devices that collect data from wheelchair users indicate the need for vibration-dampening cushions or suspension systems.  Prolonged sitting is also a risk factor for pressure ulcers, a debilitating complication that diminishes quality of life. The research shows that cooling the tissues under pressure can reduce the risk for skin breakdown, and suggests the use of temperature control mechanisms in cushions and mattresses.

Dr. Cooper is the FISA/PVA Endowed Chair and a Distinguished Professor of the Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Pittsburgh.  He is also the Center Director at the Center of Excellence for Wheelchair and Related Technology, VA Rehabilitation Research & Development Center, and a Senior Research Career Scientist at the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Service, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine, the peer-reviewed journal of the Academy of Spinal Cord Injury Professionals, is an international journal serving professionals from medicine, nursing, physical and occupational therapy, engineering, psychology and social work.  It publishes articles encompassing the multidisciplinary field of spinal cord medicine, leading to excellence in practice, education, research, policy development, and academic administration.

Illustration:  Maney Publishing.

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Maney Publishing Press Release

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Editorial (Technology, trends, and the future for people with spinal cord injury.  Cooper, Rory A.  Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine, Volume 36, Number 4, July 2013, pp. 257-257(1).)

Special Issue (Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine, Volume 36, Number 4, July 2013.)