Our approach to spinal cord therapy

Kennedy Krieger Institute: Kristen's Journey If you have a spinal cord injury, the connection between your brain and body is lost. The brain can no longer tell the body to move.

Activity Based Restorative Therapies (ABRT) help patients with spinal cord injuries perform activities that prompt your nervous system to “remember” how to move.

Here at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, doctors and physical therapists use innovative rehabilitation programs to help people with paralysis gain improved health and quality of life. Many of them recover some degree of sensation, movement and independence.

Activity based restorative therapies (ABRT)

For many years, it was assumed that recovery was only possible within the first year after injury. Therapy solely focused on teaching the newly-injured how to live in a wheelchair and compensate for your paralysis. The goal of ABRT at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury is to increase mobility by activating the nervous system above and below the level of your injury, encouraging your brain and nervous system to form new connections, even after many years with paralysis. These therapies can also help you avoid common complications of paralysis such as osteoporosis, skin breakdown, infection, cardiovascular decline, and other signs of premature aging, which are costly to treat and detrimental to your overall quality of life.

ABRT at the Center includes a variety of therapeutic activities, including functional electrical stimulation, repetitive intensive practice of functional activities, weight-bearing, locomotor training, and gait training.

In addition to working with our patients, we also offer training to professionals who want to learn more about ABRT.

Functional electrical stimulation (FES)

Functional electrical stimulation (FES) works by having a computer send electrical messages to your muscle, causing it to contract in a way that can be used for purposeful movement, such as grasping an object. Functional eletrical stimulation is often used in combination with other therapies.

Riding an FES bike simulates the physical activity that a person normally experiences during an average day. Cycling for one hour is equivalent to walking 6,000 steps.

Aquatic therapy

Water supports about 90% of a person’s weight and provides a unique therapeutic environment. People with paralysis can perform activities in water that would be impossible for them on land. This therapy, like cycling an FES bike, can provide the patterned stimulation needed to promote activation of the nervous system.

See the benefits of aquatic therapy in action

Partial weight supported walking (PWSW)

In partial weight supported walking therapy, the patient is suspended in a harness, which allows you to walk over an electric treadmill at a very low speed.

If you are not able to start stepping on your own, two therapists help move your legs to ensure an efficient and technically correct gait. Gait training allows you to relearn natural walking while recovering mobility.

You'll bear progressively more weight as their gait patterns are established. If you have an incomplete spinal cord injury, the PWSW is followed or complemented by traditional over-ground walking.

Strengthening and Practicing Activities

You will also spend therapy time working on strengthening the core muscles of your trunk and abdomen, which you use to sit and stand. In addition, we will spend time on standing activities to prepare for more patterned activities that simulate walking. Our therapy center is equipped with state-of-the-art rehabilitative equipment that is often incorporated into these therapy activities.

Depending on your individual goals, therapy will also include practicing specific tasks that will help promote your recovery and work towards your objectives. For some patients, this may include practicing grasping, so they can achieve independence in dressing themselves. For other patients, this may be improving grip strength, in order to complete transfers more safely.

What to expect from therapy at Kennedy Krieger Institute

Your doctor and therapy team will evaluate your medical history and conduct a thorough physical exam before your first therapy session. This lets them adapt therapy to your capabilities. They will regularly re-evaluate you throughout your therapy to ensure your treatment remains safe and effective. 

Your therapy is focused on you and the goals you set with your physician and therapist; therapy sessions typically last three to four hours.

In addition to medical services, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, we offer a variety of additional services to help you achieve your goals, both in therapy and in your community.