Researchers at the University of Washington used a minimally invasive electrical stimulation approach that helped individuals with spinal cord injuries restore their hand and arm function dramatically. The method entails applying band-aid-like patches to the backs of patients' necks to transmit electrical pulses that assist activate the nerves underneath.

Patients with spinal cord injuries often have significant limitations in movement and independence when doing daily tasks. Many of these patients have poor hand and arm control, making it difficult for them to live independently. Physical treatment can assist, but it isn't always enough to see major improvements in hand function.

“We use our hands for everything - eating, cleaning our teeth, buttoning our shirts,” Fatma Inanici, one of the study's researchers, explained. “Regaining hand function is the very top goal for spinal cord injury patients. It is five to six times more critical than everything else for which they seek assistance.”

Implanted electrical stimulators have been demonstrated in certain studies to assist individuals with spinal injuries regain some function, although the procedure is intrusive. This new trial used a minimally invasive technique, in which band-aid-like patches are applied to the skin on the back of the neck around the wounded area, and electrical stimulation is delivered through the skin.

Patients with spinal cord injuries were selected for the study, and they were asked to execute physical activities with and without electrical stimulation. “I didn't expect such an instantaneous response from the very first stimulation session,” Inanici remarked at the outset of the trial. “In my experience as a rehabilitation physician, there was always a limit to how much individuals could recover. However, it appears that this is changing. It's really satisfying to witness these outcomes.”

Many of the patients showed significant improvements in hand and arm control after a few months of training and electrical stimulation, with one being able to play a musical instrument for the first time in years. Surprisingly, the advantages appeared to last when the researchers checked in on the patients six months later, indicating that the procedure might lead to long-term benefits.