Locomotor Training Helps With Development After Pediatric Spinal Cord Injury

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As an expectant or new parent, it’s something that nothing can prepare you for: An injury at birth, or an illness right after that causes a problem with the spinal cord and may prevent a child from ever walking.

Scientists at the University of Louisville have designed a machine and therapy that works with a child’s still developing neurological system to help them regain movement.

Every step little Luke Madson takes is nothing short of a miracle. Born at just 33 weeks, Luke spent the first month of his life in the NICU. Shortly after he came home to live with mom, Sarah, dad, Tim, and big sister Ruthie, Sarah noticed something wasn’t right.

“Like he couldn't hold his head up. He wasn't really moving his arms and legs very much,” explained Sarah.

Doctors tested Luke and found he had a spinal cord injury that likely occurred in the womb or at birth.

“They told us that he would be fully paralyzed, and on a ventilator, if that was showing up as an injury for us as an adult. But it was pretty miraculous that he was moving and breathing on his own,” said Sarah.

Now at just over two years old, doctors say Luke is making huge developmental strides. Experts credit the improvement on an intensive therapy known as locomotor training. Done on a machine designed just for pediatric patients.

“We use a treadmill environment, a harness system to help unweight the child, somewhat,” said Dr. Andrea L. Behrman, a Physical Therapist with the University of Louisville.

Trainers surround Luke and guide his feet. They encourage Luke to play while stepping, engaging his arms and hands.

“We're trying to realign what typically happens in development with a type of therapy to activate his nervous system, starting at the spinal cord,” said Behrman.

Researchers say the locomotor training taps into the spinal cord’s ability to help Luke regain movement and control of his midsection. Therapists say after one year of therapy, Luke no longer slumps forward in a chair or walker.

“This locomotor training has given him the opportunity to move. And it's just like, turned him on. It's just been life-changing for all of us,” smiled Sarah.

Luke does locomotor training on the pediatric treadmill for one hour a day, five days a week, followed by additional physical therapy. The Madson family moved from their hometown of Minneapolis to Louisville so Luke could have the specialized treatment. Andrea Behrman says she can’t tell the Madson’s what Luke’s specific prognosis will be, but she does say he is getting better and stronger.

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