Functional electrical stimulation (FES; e-stim) has been around since the late 19th century. Seen as a way to enhance existing function today, small portable units can be employed to stimulate and strengthen weak leg muscles, enabling people with significant muscle sparing to walk. Implanted e-stim units can enhance hand function and grip, with the user activating the unit with specific shoulder movements. Ditto for bladder control — a “pee-on-demand” system. Over the past decade or so, implanted units have been offered as an alternative to vents, enabling people to breathe on their own, free from the bulk and noise of external units.
Christopher Reeve’s advocacy brought attention to FES’s potential to enhance return of function and begin to retrain muscles. While no blockbuster breakthroughs have yet to emerge from all this work, researchers and clinicians continue to toil, tinker and experiment with FES to find ways to benefit people dealing with a variety of neurological conditions ranging from spinal cord injury to multiple sclerosis to stroke.
One such benefit is heart health.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among people with SCI, with reported rates ranging from 30 to 50 percent. The SCI population is plagued by numerous other chronic diseases and conditions, including obesity, high cholesterol levels and adult onset diabetes.
A major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and early death is physical inactivity, which has been linked with cholesterol problems, increased fat and glucose intolerance — the inability to properly metabolize blood sugars and a precursor to diabetes.