Rolling Without Limits

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Obsession With Walking: The Evolving Nature of SCI Research
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Obsession With Walking: The Evolving Nature of SCI Research

Kimberly Anderson is a scientist and professor at Case Western Reserve University, whose work focuses on bridging the gap between the research community and the spinal cord injury community, as well as translating effective research into clinical treatments. She is also a quadriplegic who, upon starting her post-doctoral research in the early 2000s, wondered why so many SCI researchers focused solely on locomotion. “I wasn’t seeing much research on cervical injury models and hand function, very little on bladder and bowel, and almost zero on sexual function,” she says. “I was talking to a researcher and he said, ‘I agree those things are probably important. But until I see data that says they’re important, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.’”

The exchange prompted Anderson to collect that data. In 2004, she published a groundbreaking survey, “Targeting recovery: priorities of the spinal cord-injured population.” The results codified what those with SCI already knew — walking is not at the top of our wish list. The survey found that for quads, the number one functional priority was increased hand and upper-extremity function. For paras, it was sexual function. Overall, walking was fourth, behind sexual function, bowel and bladder function, and trunk control.

In the 14 years since that survey was published, more researchers have started coming around. There are a host of studies now focused on improving secondary complications of SCI — transcutaneous stimulation to improve grip strength in quads, magnetic stimulation to restore bladder control, FES implantation to improve bowel function, epidural stimulation as a means of improving cardiovascular function, next-generation diaphragm pacing for high quads, and the list goes on.

Of course, walking and lower-extremity function is still a major component of research, but these days many scientists are taking a broader aim at functional recovery. “We’re really more focused on the whole system,” she says.

Image credit: Photo by Author

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