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Abdominal stimulation translation into worldwide clinical practice

Neuroscience Research Australia and The University of New South Wales

  • Spinal Cord Injury Research Grant
Date Funded:
  • 30 June, 2020
Chief Investigator/s:
  • Dr. Euan McCaughey

Project summary

Abdominal stimulation to improve clinical outcomes after spinal cord injury: translation into worldwide clinical practice.

What is the issue for NSW?

Sixty percent of new spinal cord injury (SCI) cases are caused by an injury to the neck area of the spinal cord. This is the most severe form of spinal cord injury and leads to a condition known as tetraplegia.

Tetraplegia paralyses all four limbs and affects the major breathing muscles, namely the diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles. This impacts breathing and leads to the development of respiratory complications, the leading cause of illness and death in the first year of tetraplegia. Poor breathing function also means that around 40% of people with tetraplegia require a mechanical ventilator for some period of time after their injury.

While a life-saving machine, using a mechanical ventilator increases the chances of further illness and death, increases readmissions to hospital, decreases quality of life, and costs an extra $2,000 per patient per day. As the abdominal muscles are also an important muscle to help empty the bowel, a spinal cord injury can also result in poor bowel function and bowel complications.


What does the research aim to do and how?

Electrical stimulation, the application of electrical pulses to a nerve, can make muscles contract, even when paralysed. This researcher has shown that surface electrical stimulation of the abdominal muscles, termed Abdominal Stimulation, improves the breathing of people with tetraplegia. This research project will investigate whether Abdominal Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) reduces respiratory complications and reduces mechanical ventilation duration for people with acute tetraplegia, and improves bowel function for people with a chronic spinal cord injury. A standard Abdominal FES treatment program will be developed to support the translation of this research into clinical practice. This research has the potential to improve quality of life for SCI patients and reduce costs for the NSW health system.