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10.18.2016

Miller School Researchers Receive Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Grant

A team of Miller School researchers will be studying neuropathic pain in patients with spinal cord injuries after receiving a $2.4 million five-year grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

“Our goal is to combine clinical activities with research to make a difference in the lives of people with spinal cord injuries,” said Elizabeth Roy Felix, Ph.D., research associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, and research health scientist with the Miami VA Healthcare System.

Felix is the principal investigator for the Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems (SCIMS) grant, which supports the cooperative clinical and research work of the Miller School’s rehabilitation department, The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital., whose SCIMS work is led by co-directors Diana Cardenas, M.D., and Mark Nash, Ph,D.

“Model systems grants are meant to improve the research and outcomes for certain diseases, in this case spinal cord injuries,” said Robert W. Irwin, M.D., professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. “We look at an intervention that could prevent or reduce this challenging type of chronic pain.”

Neuropathic pain is a complex condition that occurs when injured nerve fibers send incorrect signals to the brain. It affects about 50 percent of patients with spinal cord injuries, and can develop immediately or several months after the injury occurs, according to Felix. The pain is usually felt in the legs or lower torso and can be on one or both sides of the body.

“Current treatments are not very effective for neuropathic pain after spinal cord injury, which greatly impacts patients’ lives,” Felix said. “We will be looking at an intervention using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) soon after the spinal cord injury to try to prevent the pain from developing.”

TENS is a recognized treatment for muscle pain that uses low-voltage electrical current to block nerve cell signaling. “We are taking an innovative approach in using TENS to prevent neuropathic pain or reduce its severity, rather than as a treatment for a chronic condition,” she said.

The South Florida SCIMS group will also assess risk factors for this debilitating condition, and collaborate with other SCIMS centers to study other long-term consequences of spinal cord injury, including pain and cardiovascular and metabolic issues.

Noting that the South Florida center also has a Model Systems grant to study rehabilitation outcomes in patients with traumatic brain injuries, Irwin said, “Having two grants demonstrates the strength and depth of our young department and adds to our national recognition in our field. I am extremely proud of our team.”

The Spinal Cord Injury Model Systems program, established in 1970, studies the course of recovery and outcomes following the delivery of a coordinated system of care for individuals with spinal cord injuries. Under this program, the 14 SCIMS centers provide comprehensive rehabilitation services to individuals with SCI and conduct spinal cord research, including clinical research. This includes the analysis of standardized data gathered in collaboration with other SCIMS projects. The National Data and Statistical Center for Spinal Cord Injury has maintained data collection for the SCIMS centers since 1984.

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