A novel surgical technique helped 13 young adults with paralysis of both the upper and lower limbs regain the ability to feed themselves, hold a drink, brush their teeth, and write, says a study.
The novel nerve transfer surgery connects functioning nerves with injured nerves to restore power in paralysed muscles.
During the surgery, Australian surgeons attached functioning nerves above the spinal injury to paralysed nerves below the injury, said the study published in the journal The Lancet.
Two years after surgery, and following intensive physical therapy, participants were able to reach their arm out in front of them and open their hand to pick up and manipulate objects.
Restoring elbow extension improved their ability to propel their wheelchair and to transfer into bed or a car.
They can now perform everyday tasks independently such as feeding themselves, brushing teeth and hair, putting on make-up, writing, handling money and credit cards, and using tools and electronic devices.
"For people with tetraplegia (paralysis of both the upper and lower limbs), improvement in hand function is the single most important goal," said Natasha van Zyl from Austin Health in Melbourne, Australia who led the research.
"We believe that nerve transfer surgery offers an exciting new option, offering individuals with paralysis the possibility of regaining arm and hand functions to perform everyday tasks, and giving them greater independence and the ability to participate more easily in family and work life," Van Zyl added.
The findings suggest that nerve transfers can achieve similar functional improvements to traditional tendon transfers, with the benefit of smaller incisions and shorter immobilisation time after surgery.
While only a small study, the researchers said that nerve transfers are a major advance in the restoration of hand and arm function, and offer another safe, reliable surgical option for people living with tetraplegia.
"What's more, we have shown that nerve transfers can be successfully combined with traditional tendon transfer techniques to maximise benefits," Van Zyl said.