Paralyzed woman tests whether exercise will augment surgery
Posted By: WZZM 13
Updated:10/14/2008 7:58:58 PM - Posted: 10/14/2008 7:53:53 PM

Erica Nader, a West Bloomfield woman and the first U.S. patient to undergo experimental stem cell surgery in Portugal to repair her damaged spinal cord, works out intensely below a T-shirt hanging from the ceiling at her rehabilitation business.

"Train Insane or Stay the Same," the shirt says, the same philosophy that frames Nader's recovery from a spinal cord injury -- and her unconventional rehabilitation regimen.

Paralyzed from the mid-chest down in an auto accident seven years ago, Nader, 30, has adjusted her daily intensive therapy to focus on standing upright and walking. The exercises are more intense, focused and different from the endurance and upper body strength therapy that most patients get.

She works out three hours a day, five days a week at Walk the Line to SCI Recovery, a Ferndale rehabilitation business she started last year.

It is one of about two dozen programs nationwide that emphasize intensive exercise regimens for spinal cord injury patients. More conventional programs focus on functional daily activities, like transferring from a bed to a wheelchair, or eating food or drinking from a cup. Intense therapy such as Nader's tends to be offered to people with less serious spinal cord injuries.

Nader attributes the improvements she has made in the last year to the weight-bearing exercises in her regimen that are designed to put her feet on the ground as much as possible. During training, she usually uses either a standing frame or an overhead harness system that supports her while she takes steps.

Since changing the focus in her training to more weight-bearing activity earlier this year, she has noticed her breathing, balance and core strength improve. She feels sensation in her lower limbs at times, for the first time.

The stepping movements and knee flexion exercises, known to professionals in the field as locomotor training, help reawaken dormant nerve cells in the spinal cord, experts say, citing 20 years of studies. They should provide lifelong benefits that reduce health costs, researchers say.

The key, Nader and others say, is that the exercise must place weight on her feet, relying less on technology to do the work for her. "I call it sweat equity," Nader said. "This is more difficult, but it's definitely more beneficial."

Her story provides hope and answers for the 250,000 Americans living with a spinal cord injury. More than 13,000 are newly injured each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Database, a national registry. Many have been told they'd never walk again or regain functions they lost.