How Stem Cells & Physical Therapy Are Leading the Way in Spinal Cord Injury Therapy

Stem cells are known for their ability to develop into various types of cells in the body, giving rise to the possibility of countless medical applications. Currently, stem cells are used to treat a number of diseases, and more families are turning to cord blood storage as a medical precaution for their children. In addition to the current uses, a recent study showed promising results for spinal cord injury patients by combining stem cell therapy with traditional physical therapy.

A spinal cord injury damages or severs the nerve fibers, which can lead to impaired movement and sensation in the affected part of the body, or in severe cases, completes paralysis. There are currently no known treatments that are able to prevent or reverse this damage. Current therapy focuses on preventing secondary damage to surrounding tissues, and maintaining any remaining function in the affected area. However, stem cells have the potential to change this.

In a clinical trail led by Dr. Sabaawy, 70 patients with spinal cord injuries were split into two groups. One group received physical therapy only, while the other received a combination of physical therapy and stem cell therapy (the stem cells were harvested from the patients own bone marrow). All of the participants had previously received traditional therapy for at least 6 months, with no noticeable improvements. Although there were variations in the types of injuries involved, all of the patients suffered from paralysis on some level.

So far, none of the treatments have resulted in complete recovery from the spinal cord damage. However, there were significant improvements, especially when the treatment was paired with physical therapy to help strengthen the signals between the newly differentiated stem cells and the older cells that surround the damaged area. Just like in the nervous system of a child just learning to use his or her body in new ways, the recipient of stem cell therapy must practice making everyday movements so the new cells can become accustomed to the demands that will be placed on them. Without physical therapy, the treatment was noticeably less effective.

At the end of Dr. Sabaawys study, none of the patients who received traditional therapy showed any signs of improvement. Conversely, the patients who received the stem cell therapy showed improved muscle control; enough to live without a catheter in some cases. In addition to improved muscle control, 23 of the 50 participants receiving stem cell therapy showed improvements of at least 10 points on the American Spinal Injury Association Impairment Scale. Astonishingly, a few of the patients were even able to walk with assistance.

While stem cell therapy may still be a long way from becoming mainstream, new discoveries are always being made that can increase the effectiveness of this exciting treatment. If and when it does become available to the general public, remarkable changes could be made in the lives of people who are dealing with the aftermath of a spinal cord injury. Perhaps someday we will be able to entirely reverse this damage, as well as repair any other kind of damage to the body.