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Oxygen Treatment Helps Patients With Spinal Cord Injuries Improve Walking Ability

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A novel approach to treating spine injuries involving hypoxia therapy and walking exercises has shown improvements in mobility and endurance in patients with trauma to the spinal cord, results from research published in the journal Neurology show.

The outcomes from the study, led by Randy D. Trumbower, of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, suggest that, when combined with traditional rehabilitation therapies, low-oxygen therapies deliver better results than when one of the treatments is used alone.

According to Trumbower, around three in five spinal injuries are incomplete, meaning that there is potential for the spinal cord to recover as the damage is not absolute.

For the purposes of their research, the team enrolled 19 patients with an incomplete spinal cord injury (between C2 and T12) who had no joint contracture but some controlled ankle, knee and hip movements. The participants were able to make at least one step without human assistance.

The patients were divided into two groups. In the first group, participants received either daily hypoxia treatment (breathing low oxygen levels in short periods) or a sham treatment (control treatment) through a mask and were switched to the other treatment after two weeks. The hypoxia treatment involved 90-second periods of breathing low oxygen levels, followed by 60 seconds of breathing normal air, for 40 minutes over five days.

In the second group, participants were administered hypoxia or sham treatment and were then asked to walk as quickly as possible within one hour of the treatment. They switched to the alternate treatment two weeks later.

After comparing walking speed and endurance levels before the start of the study, on the first and fifth days of treatment and one and two weeks after it was completed, the researchers found that the participants who received the hypoxia treatment improved their walking speed by 3.8 seconds on a ten-metre walking test compared with when they were administered only normal oxygen levels. On a six-minute walking test, patients that were administered the hypoxia treatment along with walking exercises improved their endurance by 250%, or 100 metres on average, compared to participants who received sham treatment and walking.