The use of electrical impulses to stimulate weak or paralyzed muscles, called Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES), is often used to help stroke or multiple sclerosis patients to walk. In a pilot study published in Neuromodulation, Geraldine E. Mann of Salisbury Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust in England presents evidence that FES may also provide major benefits to people with Parkinson’s disease.
People suffering from Parkinson’s are prone to tripping and falling because they have difficulty picking up their feet consistently, as well as starting and maintaining walking. Although it has been widely observed that visual and auditory cues and cognitive strategies can improve walking ability in Parkinson’s sufferers, this study marks the first time that FES has been considered as an aid.
“Stimulation is triggered in FES by a footswitch usually placed in the heel of the shoe,” explains Mann. “As the heel rises stimulation starts, continues as the leg swings through and stops when the heel strikes the ground, continuing this cycle as the person walks.”
Mann and her team find significant evidence that FES can immediately reduce falls in people with Parkinson’s, as well as improving average stride length, speed of gait and distance walked.
The study also demonstrates a carryover or learning effect for improvements gained during FES use that continues even when stimulation has stopped.
While a larger study is required to support these findings, “they are interesting and deserve further investigation for the sake of people with Parkinson’s disease for whom there is little treatment other than medication to alleviate the problems they have with walking,” says Mann. “FES could make a big difference to their quality of life and provide therapists with an additional and much needed treatment modality.”
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