5 July 2019
A world-first study led by Austin Health and the University of Melbourne has demonstrated how nerve transfer surgery is giving quadriplegic patients life-changing movement back in their hands and elbows.
Lead researcher, Austin Health's Dr Natasha van Zyl, said the study, published this month in The Lancet, followed the progress of 13 patients who received nerve transfers after suffering complete paralysis.
"The research shows that transferring working nerves from one part of the body can give quadriplegic patients long-term use of their hands and elbows again," Dr van Zyl said.
"The 13 patients who were part of the study are now able to do things like feed themselves, hold and manipulate objects, and use electronic devices without assistance thanks to nerve transfer surgery.
"Improving hand function is a key goal for patients with quadriplegia because it provides independence and the ability to perform everyday tasks.
"This is life-changing for patients who had previously lost movement as a result of an accident.
"Patients with complete paralysis due to a spinal cord injury still have working nerves in parts of their body that are above the where the spinal cord was damaged.
"Transplanting these working nerves into the hands and elbows of patients, combined with intensive physical therapy, has given them the use of their arms to reach out and their hands to pick things up meaning they are able to take part more easily in family and work life," she said.
Dr van Zyl said the study looked at a group of patients with an average age of 27 years who were able to have surgery within 18 months of their injury.
"Austin Health is helping to lead the world in the use of nerve transfer surgery in spinal cord injury and this is the biggest group of nerve transfer patients ever examined anywhere in the world," she said.
"Every year, between 250 000 and 500 000 people suffer a spinal cord injury around the world and more than half of these patients become quadriplegic.
"We followed the progress of each patient involved in the study for two years and have been able to show that nerve transfer is an exciting new option that can be safely used alongside other existing surgery techniques to help quadriplegia patients regain function in their upper body," Dr van Zyl said.
The new research 'Expanding traditional tendon-based techniques with nerve transfers for the restoration of upper limb function in tetraplegia: a prospective case series' is now available at www.thelancet.com