Walking problems and freezing of gait (a temporary inability to move) are troublesome and difficult-to-treat symptoms of Parkinson's, especially in progressing disease. Current medications and surgical treatments may not fully address these symptoms, leaving people to rely on exercise and physical therapy and leading researchers to look for new and better options.
Recent research suggests that spinal cord stimulation may ease walking problems and lessen freezing. In this treatment, a surgeon implants thin electrodes on top of the spinal cord. These electrodes are connected to a pacemaker-like device that is placed under the skin. Doctors program this device to deliver small electrical pulses through the electrodes to modulate signals traveling from the legs through the spinal cord to the brain in order to improve walking and prevent freezing.
Spinal cord stimulation is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat chronic pain. It works similarly to deep brain stimulation (DBS), the most commonly performed surgery for Parkinson's, in which doctors implant electrodes into the brain to treat movement symptoms. DBS does not typically work well for freezing or all walking problems, and not everyone is a candidate for DBS. If successful in clinical trials, spinal cord stimulation could expand treatment options, especially for advancing Parkinson's.
In a 2018 study published in Movement Disorders, Olivia Samotus, MSc, and colleagues at University of Western Ontario in Canada tested spinal cord stimulation in five men with advanced Parkinson's. At six months, all participants had improved walking and decreased movement symptoms and freezing. Based on these results, the investigators tested the therapy in additional volunteers, who experienced similar benefits.
Samotus' work is ongoing, and others also are looking at spinal cord stimulation for Parkinson's disease. Many other trials are focused on developing better therapies for gait and balance problems. The Michael J. Fox Foundation recently issued over $3 million in grants to projects using technology to ease these symptoms.