An exciting new treatment for sufferers of spinal cord injury is being trialled on the first set of participants at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

The treatment – a non-invasive way of improving arm and hand function for people who are tetraplegic, or paralysed from the neck down – is part of the Up-LIFT study being run by ONWARD Medical, and NHSGGC has been chosen to be part of it.

The new treatment, called ARC Therapy, uses tiny electric pulses to improve connections across the damaged area of the spinal cord, and the results so far have been encouraging.

Mariel Purcell, Consultant in Spinal Injuries at NHSGGC who is leading the study at the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, said: “This is a really exciting research project involving a piece of kit that is completely non-invasive.

“We’ve had a lot of interest – from patients and other spinal injuries clinics around the UK, and further afield. We’ve even been contacted by a patient from the south of England, who is prepared to relocate here just to take part in the study.”

The first half of the study involves eight weeks of intensive therapy to optimise upper limb movement and function. During the second phase of the study participants will receive non-invasive stimulation of the spinal cord in addition to traditional upper limb therapy for a further eight weeks.

The Up-LIFT device itself is quite small – a tablet, an unassuming box and four electrodes. At first glance it looks much like the Tens machine used during labour or for back pain, but it’s much more sophisticated.

Trauma to the spinal cord usually results in damage to a short section of the cord. Above and below the site of the injury the cord is usually healthy; the goal is to re-establish connection between the two.

The Up-LIFT treatment is intended to improve the connections between these healthy areas by placing electrodes on the skin that activate the nerves below the level of the injury, making the body more receptive to hand and arm movements.

The aim of the treatment is to help people regain some use of their arms and hands, but it may also improve bladder and bowel function, along with blood pressure control and temperature regulation.

This means that as well as bringing about improvements in the capacity to perform activities of daily living there are other potential health benefits too. 

Dr Purcell is realistic that completely reversing the damage caused by the spinal cord injury is currently out of reach but explains that even the smallest improvement could make a huge difference to individuals with spinal cord injury.

The people the team will treat in the study have received all the rehabilitation and treatment that’s currently available, and they are living as independently as they can. The NHSGGC study is trying to prove that ARC Therapy will make them even more independent and lead to improvement in quality of life.

The eventual hope for Dr Purcell is to introduce ARC Therapy earlier in a person’s rehabilitation, much sooner after their injury, so that they get the benefits much earlier. 

And to give an example of just how much of a difference the treatment can make, Dr Purcell recalled one recent case.

She said: “One patient who we have treated with the device was injured playing rugby at the age of 16 and had been completely paralysed from the neck down since.

“After the treatment, he had no problems with bladder or temperature control, he could move his big toes, and he can use his arms enough to operate a mobile phone.

The study in Glasgow is recruiting participants until end of the year and it is hoped the final results of the study will be available later next year.