New rehab tool gets muscles moving

August 1, 2014

Patient paralyzed from waist down but can still pedal bike

Story and Photo by Colin Zak

You’d never guess Roger Benson is paralyzed below the waist as he pedals his stationary exercise bike.

The 55-year-old Calgary man – who has been in a wheelchair since a motocross accident this past April – is able to stay active and exercise his legs thanks to a new rehabilitation tool: the FES (Functional Electrical Stimulation) bike.

“I can’t feel my legs and don’t control the pedals but it feels good to have my legs move,” Benson says. “My legs actually feel tired, which is tremendous.”

After a spinal cord injury, the brain is often unable to send messages through the spinal cord to the muscles. With the FES bike, electrodes are attached to the surface of the skin of the arms or legs, and the electrodes stimulate the muscles, causing them to contract and create a cycling motion on the foot pedals or hand cranks.

“It feels like a buzzing through my legs down to my feet,” Benson says. “The FES bike helps me maintain muscle tone and mass. After just six 30-minute sessions, I’m already seeing muscle definition in my legs.”

Located at Foothills Medical Centre (FMC), the FES bike is the first of its kind in Calgary and one of four such bicycles at Alberta Health Services (AHS) facilities in the province. (Similar bikes are in operation at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, and Lacombe Hospital and Care Centre). In Calgary, purchase of the FES bike was made possible thanks to funds from the Calgary Health Trust.

Each year, there are 140 people with new spinal cord injuries in Alberta – approximately one-third of them in Calgary.

“The FES bike is an exciting new piece of equipment for southern Albertans. It’s exciting to see patients using it and benefiting,” says Jackie Kilgour, a physiotherapist with the Spinal Cord Injury Team at Foothills Medical Centre.

In the past, a similar bike was used for patient rehabilitation that produced passive movement via a motor, which meant there was no activation of muscles.

Kilgour says the FES bike has four main benefits for patients: it builds increased muscle mass, which helps prevent pressure sores; it improves circulation and skin health; it increases range of motion, and improves cardiovascular health.

Dr. Chester Ho, Division Head of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation at FMC, says the FES bike means an improved overall quality of health for patients with spinal cord injuries.

“Without the ability to move, muscles often become atrophied and lose mass,” Ho says. “This new device is quite important for some of our patients with spinal cord injuries because it allows them to maintain muscle bulk even though they are unable to do the actual exercises on their own. It also has many other potential medical benefits, such as cardiovascular fitness and decreased muscle spasms. This is great news for patients.”

The device can also aid in the rehabilitation of patients who have suffered other neurological conditions, such as strokes or brain injuries.

“If I ever do stand again, I’ll already have that muscle bulk I need, thanks to the bike,” Benson adds. “Since I’ve been on the machine, I’ve been able to move the muscles in my quads a bit on my own. I attribute that to using the bike. It gives me hope.”