7 February, 2004
Thousands of people develop problems with walking after suffering a stroke or developing Multiple Sclerosis. But a new form of treatment is making a huge difference. Kate Lahive reports...
MOVEMENT problems affect all aspects of people's lives, such as their ability to work, visit friends and join in social activities.
Traditionally, people experiencing problems have been helped to improve their mobility by wearing special shoes and splints to compensate for paralysed leg muscles - an approach that works for many.
But now experts at a specialist centre at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield hospital have started using a form of treatment which is transforming the quality of some of patients' lives.
So far 10 people at the hospital's mobility and rehabilitation centre have benefited from 'functional stimulation', a technique which helps to regain lost muscle function and enables patients to walk more naturally.
Dr Dipak Datta, Consultant in Rehabilitation Medicine, stresses not everyone is suitable for the treatment, but said if it is considered appropriate patients can experience tremendous benefits.
He said many people were left with a movement problem after developing Multiple Sclerosis or suffering a stroke.
Problems can include people's feet dropping down, rather than turning up while walking. Patients are unable to lift the foot as they move forward and find that it drags on the ground which makes them susceptible to falls.
Some patients cope by swinging their 'bad' leg out from the hip, which is not a natural movement, slows their walking and takes a lot of extra effort.
Dr Datta explained: "For some patients it takes a long time to get from 'a to b'. It is tiring and they find they have less energy."
The new approach works by lifting the foot at the appropriate stage of stepping forward so patients use their leg muscles in the correct way.
A stimulator is clipped to the patient's belt or carried in a pocket. Cables from the stimulator are worn under clothing and are stuck onto the appropriate leg muscles.
Electrical pulses are sent from the stimulator to the leg muscles, so the downward pointing foot can be corrected during walking.
The device is switched on and off by a small switch placed on an insole in the shoe and causes the foot to lift up by sending electrical pulses through the skin to stimulate the appropriate nerve.
As the foot switch is on the under side of an insole, it can be transferred between different pairs of shoes. This means patients can wear whatever footwear they like, and not be restricted to a single pair.
The treatment is not a cure - but it can make a significant difference to all aspects of patients' lives.
So far all the Sheffield patients involved in the project have all benefited.
Clinical scientist Ben Heller said: "This is relatively new for Sheffield and it is one of a few places to have a service. It is making a big difference to patients' quality of life."
He said one patient has been able to continue with work as a result of using the service, while another regained mobility which has allowed him to go out and socialise.
Each stimulator device costs £300 and money to cover the costs devices has so far been donated by the League of Friends which raises money to support the hospital.
It is estimated that between 150 and 200 patients from across the region, who attend the centre, could be suitable for the treatment.
An application for funding has been made to the health authority which, if successful, would lead to a fully funded service being developed.
The stimulator treatment was developed in Salisbury, which has carried out successful trials on the devices.
MS , strokes do the damage
MULTIPLE Sclerosis is the most common disabling neurological condition affecting young adults. Around 85,000 people in the UK have MS.
MS is the result of damage to myelin - a protective sheath surrounding nerve fibres of the central nervous system. When myelin is damaged, this interferes with messages between the brain and other parts of the body.
For some people, MS is characterised by periods of relapse and remission while for others it has a progressive pattern. For everyone, it makes life unpredictable.
The MS Society is the UK's largest charity dedicated to supporting everyone whose life is touched by MS.
Strokes are also a leading cause of disability.
The condition occurs when an area of the brain is deprived of its blood supply for 24 hours or more - usually because of a blockage or burst blood vessel, causing vital brain tissue to die.
Nine out of ten strokes are in people aged over 55. But anyone of any age, including children, can have a stroke.
Strokes can be mild or severe and symptoms include paralysis, loss of the ability to walk and speech loss.
Smokers are at twice the risk of stroke.
And people who are physically inactive are at twice the risk of stroke
as those moderately active.
Copyright © 2004, Johnston Press New Media