New tricks: using safe, effective technology to help stroke survivors regain independence

Guest Blog by Dr Shamim Quadir, Research Communications Manager at the Stroke Association

???????????????????????????????Before I studied for my doctorate in clinical neuroscience, my background was in mechanical engineering. Having an engineering mind, I’m always looking for the right tool for the job.  From the right seat for my bike to ensure a comfortable ride home, to the right tool in the kitchen to open a tight jar. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so enthused about Stroke Association funded research which involves tools to help arm and leg weakness after stroke.

Every year, thousands of stroke patients begin a long road to recovery, and the majority of these people will have to cope with partial paralysis in their leg or arm. Simple things like making a cup of tea, or going down to the shops for a newspaper can suddenly seem like insurmountable challenges.

Functional Electrical Stimulation, or FES, is an incredible technology that helps people regain their mobility and independence after a stroke.  It’s something I always try to mention when I do outreach work with school children, because it immediately grabs their attention and is very easy to picture. FES devices are small, portable, and are worn over the muscles weakened by a stroke. They use electrical signals to stimulate the muscles to contract at the right time, getting patients with paralysis moving again. It sounds like something out of science fiction, except that it’s actually been helping stroke survivors since 1997.

At the Stroke Association, we wanted to see if more could be done using FES technology to help stroke survivors living with disability. The National Clinical FES Centre, based at Salisbury District Hospital, is the largest service of its kind in Western Europe, treating more than 2,500 patients.  It’s also where the Stroke Association funds Dr Paul Taylor to conduct FES research to further benefit stroke survivors.

Seven years ago, we started funding Dr Taylor’s investigation into FES treatment of a condition called drop foot, used in combination with physiotherapy.  No one had done this before. Drop foot is when the leg muscles that lift the toes to the knee are weak, leaving the foot to drag and catch on obstacles, making it difficult to walk.  An FES device called a ‘drop foot stimulator’ helps lift the foot, and allows stroke survivors to walk further and more comfortably. In this pilot study, researchers worked with stroke survivors who were in the early stages of their rehabilitation – less than six months after their stroke and where the most recovery is possible. This was another first in FES research.

The findings, which were published this month in Disability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology, suggest that there’s the potential to offer FES treatment to people in physiotherapy outpatient clinics, early in the recovery pathway.  It means a larger, randomised controlled trial (RCT) can be undertaken to show whether FES can boost the effects of physiotherapy in the early stages of stroke rehabilitation. Ingrid Wilkinson, Research Physiotherapist who conceived, and worked with Dr Taylor on the project said: ‘This research will help to improve our understanding of ways to help stroke survivors walk better and achieve their goals.’

Our wider work with Dr Taylor focuses on arm paralysis, and suggests there’s much more potential to be unlocked with FES as a treatment for stroke patients. With stroke researchers teaming up all over the world, we hope a whole range of new ways can be found to use FES technology to help stroke survivors regain independence, confidence and make the most of life. New developments with FES lie just beyond our grasp; it will take reasoning, passionate researchers, and investment to make them a reality.

image002The Stroke Association is a charity that relies on donations to change the lives of stroke survivors and their families. To find out more about the research we fund, and to make a donation, visit


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