Truth is, I never thought I’d be saying what I’m about to say: Forty-five years after the first prediction that electrical stimulation would one day help paraplegics stand and walk functionally, we’re on the verge of seeing it happen. And we’re not talking about zombie-robot-Frankenstein walking. We’re talking about the real thing.
I’ve written before about the Los Angeles Times article I read in 1966 that reported on the first para to stand when muscles in his legs were directly stimulated. It was a time when computers took up an entire floor of a building and no one understood the complicated dynamics of walking. A talented young actor named Christopher Reeve was just 13 years old.
They called it bioelectric stimulation, and it was based on the prevailing doctrine that a spinal cord, once injured, was useless forevermore. The electrodes were placed on the peripheral muscles themselves or the nerves adjoining the muscles. Since the spinal cord was thought to be damaged beyond repair, it made sense to bypass it altogether.
Bioelectric stimulation progressed at a snail’s pace, but it has served a useful purpose. Today we know it as functional electrical stimulation. Paired with an exercise bike, FES helps maintain muscle tone, but it has benefited a fraction of a percent of the SCI population, mainly because it is not widely available, and its practical use is limited.
Then in late May of this year came the surprising news that continuo