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Electrical currents restore lost movement in stroke-impaired limbs

Andrew Genge still recalls the enormous boy who came barreling towards him during a high-school rugby game in Markham, Ontario, on May 14, 2004. The blow to Andrew’s head was so severe that it rearranged his face and his sheared his carotid artery, the main vessel supplying blood to the brain.

“I was 15 years old, turning 16,” says Andrew. “I had a stroke. I pretty much lost all movement on my right side.”

It took years to regain what he lost. But Andrew, now age 24, credits the work of researchers and therapists at the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery (CPSR) for helping him get his life back.

Three times a week for two and a half years, Andrew and his mother made the trek from their Oshawa home to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto for therapy that included Functional Electrical Stimulation, or FES.  Electrodes on his right arm sent electrical signals to the muscles in his arm and hand and feedback went to the part of his brain controlling movement. It felt like “a tingly sensation, like pins and needles,” he says. During therapy sessions, Andrew worked to complete assigned tasks – picking up a ball, handling a phone, grabbing a thumbtack – while electrical stimulation enabled him to open his hand and extend his fingers. Repeating simple tasks over and over retrained the brain to carry out movements.

“It pretty much gave me my arm back,” says Andrew, who was so inspired by the research that he decided to study kinesiology at York University. “I was completely amazed by it.” Andrew graduated from university and now works as a kinesiologist at a physiotherapy clinic in Oshawa.  His story of recovery inspires many of the people he works with.

The hope is that new research will determine the optimal dose of electrical stimulation, long-term impact on movement, impact on quality of life and the potential use in outpatient therapy.

Researchers also want to study the cost-benefits of the therapy. Does it reduce length of stay in hospital? Prevent more people from going to long-term care? Or have an impact on the dose and kinds of medications required by patients?

Stroke is a leading cause of adult long-term disability and costs the Canadian health care system $3.6 billion a year.

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