New study shows importance of rehabilitating the mind and the body after spinal cord injury

A new study by Heriot-Watt University has suggested that it’s important to rehabilitate the mind as well as the body after a spinal cord injury.

The study was published by an international team of researchers, and has explored how individuals with spinal cord injuries perceive the space around them. The findings suggest additions are needed to the rehabilitation programmes adopted post-injury to allow the whole person to be treated, not just the physical body.

“By delivering mind rehabilitation, in partnership with physical rehabilitation, we believe we could improve the outcomes for these specific individuals, potentially allowing them to regain movement in their lower limbs.” says Heriot-Watt University.

The findings demonstrated that, even when an individual’s upper limbs are unaffected, a condition known as paraplegia, the injury still affected the person’s ability to move freely. Injury changed their perception of their reach and how they perceived the space in front of them.

These changes can affect a multitude of everyday tasks ranging from lifting a cup of tea and eating to daily self-care.

The research could help the NHS, charities and other organisations supporting individuals currently living with paraplegia, ranging from additional neurological exercises and complementing the physical rehabilitation regime to providing new insights into how homes should be adapted.

Dr Anna Sedda, assistant professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University, and principal investigator, worked in collaboration with researchers and experts based in Italy, Switzerland and the UK. She explains: “The study provides evidence that the physical change occurring in the ability to move around freely in paraplegia has a direct influence on how our brain translates an object’s properties into sensory signals.

“These results are important because available therapies for spinal cord injuries focus on treating the physical body. However, as demonstrated in the study, the changes occurring in the physical body also impact on the “representational body”, in other words, how our brain processes the environment and its object before we take action. Consequently, by only training the body to do the actions and not supporting the cognitive component, individuals may fail to make improvements.

“At present, approximately 25 per cent of those with spinal cord lesions who have retained sensory function fail to regain the use of their lower limbs and we don’t yet know why this is. By delivering mind rehabilitation, in partnership with physical rehabilitation, we believe we could improve the outcomes for these specific individuals, potentially allowing them to regain movement in their lower limbs.”

Dr Sedda hopes to establish a specialised network that will allow knowledge from studies on body representation to be translated into modifications and input for the rehabilitation of patients worldwide.

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