More than 30 percent of patients exposed to hypoxia—short periods of breathing low oxygen levels—increased walking speed by at least a tenth of a meter per second and more than 70 percent increased endurance by at least 50 meters. (Credit: Emory University)

Low oxygen lets people with spinal cord injuries walk better

Short periods of breathing low oxygen levels helps some patients with spinal cord injuries walk better.

“About 59 percent of all spinal injuries are incomplete, which means the injury leaves pathways that could enable the spinal cord to change in a way that allows people to walk again,” says study author Randy D. Trumbower, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine, at the Emory University School of Medicine.

“Unfortunately, a person affected by this type of spinal injury seldom recovers the ability to walk normally. However, our research proposes a promising new way for the spinal cord to make the connections needed to walk better.”

For the study, published online in the journal Neurology, researchers recruited people with incomplete spine injuries, no joint shortening, some controlled ankle, knee, and hip movements, and the ability to walk at least one step without human assistance.

The participants were exposed to hypoxia—short periods of breathing low oxygen levels. They breathed through a mask for about 40 minutes a day for five days, receiving 90-second periods of low oxygen levels followed by 60 seconds of normal oxygen levels. The participants’ walking speed and endurance was tested before the study started, on the first and fifth days of treatment, and again one and two weeks after the treatment ended.

70 percent better endurance

All participants improved their ability to walk. More than 30 percent of all participants increased their walking speed by at least a tenth of a meter per second and more than 70 percent increased their endurance by at least 50 meters.

“One question this research brings to light is how a treatment that requires people to take in low levels of oxygen can help movement, let alone in those with compromised lung function and motor abilities,” says Michael G. Fehlings, with the University of Toronto, who wrote a corresponding editorial on the study.

“A possible answer is that spinal serotonin, a neurotransmitter, sets off a cascade of changes in proteins that helps restore connections in the spine.”

Chronic or sustained hypoxia in untrained hands may cause serious injury and should not be attempted outside the scope of a supervised medical treatment, Trumbower cautions.

Researchers from Georgia Tech, Shepherd Center in Atlanta, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, contributed to the study, which was supported by the US Department of Defense Spinal Cord Injury Research Program.

Source: Emory University

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