It may be a long way from the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Center, but Dustin Shillcox made the trip to the Neuroworx Rehabilitation Center in South Jordan, Utah, to work alongside other paralysis patients. In this case though, his legs are moving because of an implanted electrical device — much like a pacemaker — that stimulates the spinal cord.
Neuroworx recommended Shillcox for the experimental implant at the Kentucky center. For now, he is one of only four in the world testing the new technology. The stimulator that sends the electrical impulses to the spinal cord is located just under the skin near the stomach. Shillcox turns it on or off with a hand-held remote. He can also configure the device to send various impulses of low voltage to the right or left leg or his body core.
Shillcox was paralyzed from the chest down following a truck accident in Wyoming 3 1/2 years ago. Researchers believe the stimulator makes it easier for the brain to respond, allowing Shillcox to consciously move his limbs. The right leg, the left leg, feet or ankles — whether sitting in his wheelchair or on a mat — he can move at will. He can even stand, supporting his full body weight.
"I'm not supposed to be able to move and I'm not supposed to ever walk, but when they implanted this stimulator it proves that things are happening that shouldn't be," Shillcox said. Even beyond moving the legs, other things are happening as well that researchers did not expect.
"It's had a secondary effect, " Shillcox adds. "I've had improvements in my bowels, bladder and sexual functions."
Even the ability to sweat, which many paralysis victims lose, has returned with the stimulator.
Research is still in its early stages but as more implants occur, partnerships with rehab facilities like Neuroworx will unfold. Neuorplasticity, which is another therapy technique, teaches paralysis patients how to retrain muscles below the injury site. In some cases, paraplegics and quadriplegics regain limited ability to walk again. According to Neuroworx Clinical Director Jan Black, "the neuroplasticity or the challenge of what the rehab will be beyond that point is what we will play a big part in."
For example, with the stimulator on, Shillcox, while sitting on an exercise ball, has more control and balance of his body core. Without the stimulator he couldn't even sit on the ball.
Whether Shillcox will ever be able to walk is still unknown, but with the development of more sophisticated electrodes now underway in Louisville, Kent., along with partnerships with refined therapy centers, the future for paralysis patients looks promising.
"It's an exciting feeling for me, also for what's going on inside my body. I think it gives me a reason to believe that anything is possible," Shillcox says.
And that's why this young man from Wyoming says he'll continue pushing the envelope.