Reeve's recovery of movement unlikely for others, doctors say


PHILADELPHIA - Actor Christopher Reeve's announcement this week that he had regained some limb movement stunned doctors and other quadriplegics, but experts say no miracle cure is at hand - for Reeve or other paralyzed patients.

"The spinal cord community has been agog," said Wise Young, who directs a spinal cord research program at Rutgers University and runs a patient-oriented Web site on the subject.

Reeve, 49, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback riding accident in 1995, said he had regained some movement in his fingers, wrist and feet, some ability to sense touch, heat and cold, and has improved his general health.

"There are a couple of misconceptions out there," said Young. "One is that he regained all these things overnight as a result of a therapy he's been engaging in over the last couple of months."

Rather, since 1999, Reeve has spent several hours a day in rigorous training, riding a stationary bicycle with his legs propelled by electrical currents, said spinal cord researcher John McDonald, who designed Reeve's program at Washington University in St. Louis.

Reeve also had electrical stimulation of other muscles and pool exercise.

No hard data exist to suggest other quadriplegics could benefit from such training or would find the benefits worth the commitment of time and effort.

"The idea is not new," McDonald said of his exercise program. What's new was that Reeve was able to do it so long after his accident.

"The only treatment he has gotten that other people have not gotten has been intensive physical therapy - just the intensity of it and the persistence," said Dr. John Jane, the University of Virginia neurosurgeon who operated on Reeve after his accident.

Scientists and doctors caution that people should not get too excited about any single case. Reeve has an incomplete severing of the spinal cord, said Jane, meaning that there was some nerve tissue remaining in the site of injury. So he had some hope for partial recovery.

But most patients who recover do so within the first year or two, doctors said.

After two years, it had been assumed, paralyzed patients couldn't improve much more and needed to learn to live with whatever abilities they had left. But Reeve reported regaining the ability to move his index finger five years after the accident.

"The remarkable thing about his motor recovery was that it was delayed so long," said Jane.

Some experts say they were most impressed by the claim that Reeve is enjoying better health. In the past he'd been troubled by infections, was frequently hospitalized and was constantly taking antibiotics, said McDonald.

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