Electrical stimulators provide mobility for patients with brain or muscular disorders

Posted Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Taking her four dogs out for a walk is a joy for Janet Horton.

But being able to walk comfortably at work without muscle fatigue or the risk of tripping and falling is a necessity. Horton, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 25 years ago, relies on the income from her full-time criminal justice job and her two part-time retail jobs to cover her out-of-pocket medical bills.

Horton, of Fort Worth, and millions of other Americans are affected by foot drop, a condition that can be caused by multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, brain injuries and spinal cord injuries. To keep on her feet, Horton has worn a medical device on her right leg for seven years that sends electrical impulses to her muscles, which reduces muscle fatigue and allows her to pick up her foot off the ground correctly when she walks.

“If a person has foot drop and weakness, you have to think every step you take. ‘Is my foot up? Is it right?,” said Horton, who uses a Walkaide by Innovative Neurotronics. “Who has time for that? Sometimes I forget. I’m thinking about where I need to go next. Then a fall can happen and it has.”

Local physical therapists and doctors say function electrical stimulators, or FES devices, can greatly improve mobility for patients such as Horton who are affected by brain or muscular disorders or injuries. As the technology has improved over the years, including cloth-based electrodes that no longer require skin-damaging adhesives and wireless communication capability that makes the devices appear less bulky under clothing, more patients affected by foot drop are seeking prescriptions for electrical stimulators as part of their treatment, experts say.

“This type of device is going to allow them to walk more safely at home,” said Emily Norris, a physical therapist at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. “It allows more freedom to get out and do the things they would have done before.”

Walking without the device can put more pressure on a patient’s knees, hips and back and cause him or her to wear out quickly, said Dr. Kevin Conner, a neurologist at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital.

“Most patients use it for mobility,” Conner said. “A lot of them would be wheelchair dependent without it. A lot of them have to have hard fixed braces to prevent the foot drop, which can cause muscle weakness and doesn’t help with fatigue of walking.”

Horton isn’t the only Tarrant County resident who relies on her FES device. Roger McInnis of Fort Worth has worn his Bioness L300 device on his left leg for four years to help with foot drop caused by multiple sclerosis. McInnis, a retired Navy veteran and RadioShack executive, said his electrical stimulator and electric wheelchair allow him to continue enjoying fishing, travel, playing with the grandkids and attending TCU football games.

I put it on the morning when I get out of bed and I take it off when I go to bed at night,” McInnis said. “I wear it every day. I wouldn’t go anywhere without it, whether I think I will get out of my wheelchair or not.”

Now even younger patients can benefit from the stimulators. This year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Bioness L300 for use in pediatric patients, said Keith McBride, vice president of marketing and product development for Bioness.

“The standard of care is a brace,” McBride said. “These kids are growing. A brace is a fairly fixed solution. Electrical stimulation can be a much more adaptable solution for these patients.”

FES devices aren’t just for foot drop. The Bioness H200, worn on the arm, can also help patients regain control of their hands through electrical stimulation.

Jide Obasa of Fort Worth used the Bioness L300 and Bioness H200 devices as part of his physical therapy at HealthSouth Rehabilitation in Fort Worth to regain use of his left arm and leg after a 2008 stroke. Five years later, Obasa said he can walk normally and play his keyboard again.

“There are two things that helped me — my faith and the Bioness equipment I used,” said Obasa, who is working on a contemporary jazz album. “If I didn’t tell you I had a stroke, you would never guess in a million years.”

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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