Spinal Electrical Stimulation Therapy: A Promising Treatment for Children with Spina Bifida


Each year just under 1,500 infants are born with spina bifida, a name given to a cluster of malformations that affect the neural tube. Of those 1,500, only 43% are ever able to meet basic childhood milestones like rising up from the floor to crawl, standing on their own, or walking. While surgery, physical therapy, and the use of mobility aids can help kids with spina bifida reach these goals, it’s a long, tough road to tread for parents and caregivers trying to help their children achieve as much mobility as possible.

Groundbreaking use of electrical stimulation therapy in pediatric patients with spina bifida has shown remarkable promise in increasing mobility when used in conjunction with other treatments.

What is Electrical Stimulation Therapy?

A healthcare provider places a small electrode on top of a muscle or muscle group. The electrode sends a small pulse of electricity to the muscle, activating it. In the case of weakened or underdeveloped muscles, electrical stimulation can help increase muscle tone and thus increase mobility and functionality of that muscle or muscle group.

Electrical Stimulation Therapy and Spina Bifida

Electrical stimulation therapy for those with spina bifida is nothing new, but its use in pediatric and juvenile patients hadn’t been explored until physical therapist Gerti Motavalli, of Columbia, Missouri, decided to incorporate it into her treatment protocol when one patient, now two-year-old Brody Moreland, wasn’t responding to conventional therapeutic methods.

After consulting with internationally renowned electrical stimulation expert Dr. Gad Alon, Motavalli tried stimulating Brody’s muscles. While they showed improvement in strength and tone, young Brody was still unable to feel or use the muscles that were paralyzed. His parents agreed to allow Motavalli to try spinal electrical stimulation therapy, and Brody now has some feeling in his legs and is able to move them. He was the first baby to receive spinal electrical stimulation therapy and see real, tangible results, but he isn’t the last.

Improvement After Treatment

Motavalli suggested electrical stimulation therapy to the parents of another one of her patients, six-year old Luke Freeman, who she’s been working with since he was just five weeks of age. Like Brody, Luke saw improvements in mobility, sensation and strength after receiving electrical stimulation therapy on his spine.

Motavalli has three other kids she works with who live with spina bifida, and each one has seen improvements in the year that she’s been working with them. Luke’s dad, Dr. Seth Freeman, spoke of the wonder that parents feel when seeing their children improve from the treatment: “He has new sensation today…which is an amazing thing, because, with spina bifida, kids are not supposed to get better. The sensation you are born with is what you have.”

Coming Soon?

While physical therapist Gina Motavalli’s use of electrical stimulation therapy for her juvenile patients living with spina bifida is promising, it could still take time for the treatment to be used on a large scale. The improvements seen by Luke, Brody and Motavalli’s other patients is groundbreaking, and may be worth discussing with your child’s physical therapist, primary care team, or neurologist.

Check out the latest research here.

By Caitlin Seida from In The Cloud Copy

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