The number of people living with paralysis in the United States equals the combined populations of Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
Whether you’re experiencing paralysis yourself or know someone who is, something that likely runs through your mind is, is there a potential cure? Can this be reversed?
To understand the treatment options available for people experiencing paralysis, it’s important to understand the causes of paralysis.
According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, the leading known cause of paralysis is stroke. It’s the cause in an estimated 33.7 percent of cases.
The second leading cause is spinal cord injuries, which represent 27.3 percent of cases, according to the foundation. Some specific causes of spinal cord injuries include:
- motor vehicle accidents
- sports injuries
- violence (e.g., shootings, assaults)
Other leading causes of paralysis include multiple sclerosis (an estimated 18.6 percent of cases) and cerebral palsy (8.3 percent of cases).
It’s not always possible to “cure” paralysis.
The cause and extent of the paralysis can affect whether it is reversible. For example, while some people who have had a stroke may be able to regain sensation and relearn how to walk, for those with a completely severed spinal cord, walking again may not be possible at this time.
When regaining mobility or sensation in the impacted part of the body is not possible, assistive technology and medical interventions can help improve quality of life.
Many factors play a role in whether a person with paralysis is able to walk again.
Depending on the cause and type of paralysis, a variety of treatments and aids are available to increase sensation and mobility.
Some possible treatments for paralysis include:
- surgery and possible amputation
- physical therapy
- occupational therapy
- mobility aids (wheelchairs, braces, canes, scooters, etc.)
A recent addition to the list of possible treatments for paralysis is a spinal cord implant. In this treatment, an electrical implant is surgically attached to the spine. This implant then boosts the strength of the signals between the brain and the legs.
Very few people have received this treatment so far because it is still so new. It should also be noted it’s not a solution for every type of spinal cord injury.
People who have received it did not regain all mobility. However, it does offer hope as researchers continue to explore its potential.
There may be even more resources available in the near future for people living with paralysis from a spinal cord injury.
In 2021, researchers from Northwestern University developed an injectable therapy using “dancing molecules.” It has been successful in helping mice with spinal cord injuries regain their ability to walk.
Within 4 weeks, a single injection was able to:
- regenerate the severed extensions of neurons
- significantly diminish scar tissue
- reform myelin
- form functional blood vessels at the injury site
- more motor neurons survived
However, since this was an animal study, research in humans is still needed.
Additionally, scientists from the University of Washington announced in 2021 that they helped six people with paralysis regain some degree of hand and arm mobility. They did this by combining physical therapy with a noninvasive method of stimulating nerve cells in the spinal cord.
This increased mobility lasted for 3 to 6 months after the treatments ended.
Many questions still exist about the long-term implications of these treatments and how they affect other muscles. Research is ongoing.
However, these research success stories offer hope for a better outlook.
Christopher Reeve, an actor famous for his portrayal of Superman, was paralyzed from the neck down in 1995 after falling from his horse in a competition.
Seven years later, he regained some movement and sensation in his hands and feet. He attributed this to therapy that included electrical muscle stimulation and repetitive motion exercises.
While he expressed a strong desire to walk again, Reeve died in 2004 without regaining that capability.
While Reeve’s improved paralysis can provide inspiration and is one person’s story, it should not be considered a template for every person with paralysis, even those whose paralysis is caused by spinal cord damage.
Bodies are unique. Every individual with paralysis should work with their medical team to determine appropriate therapies.
Still, Reeve’s influence in this area is unequivocal. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation has become one of the most well-known charitable organizations focused on paralysis and research, raising awareness and money for future treatments and hope for so many around the world.
Paralysis can result from a variety of medical conditions and situations. If you experience paralysis, it’s important to seek immediate medical assistance.
While there may not currently be a cure that can reverse every type of paralysis, in some cases feeling and movement can return to an affected body part.
Even in situations when this is not possible, therapies and assistive devices can improve a person’s quality of life.
If you or a loved one live with paralysis, there are resources and support groups available to help you. You don’t need to feel alone.