Electrical stimulation treatments like NeuFit® which work at the level of the nervous system, have enormous potential to help improve function in many people dealing with conditions like multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, and neuropathy, as well as patients recovering from a stroke.
Though they differ in their nature and severity, each of these conditions is rooted in an injury to the nervous system. Thanks to the nature of neuroplasticity, or the inherent capacity of the brain and nervous system to change and adapt over time, treatments that work at the level of the brain and nervous system (known as “neuromuscular re-education”) can be especially effective when it comes to neurological conditions. This is why neuroplasticity is the factor that drives our treatment approach for all of these conditions.
Our capacity for neuroplastic adaptation extends over a lifetime. Regardless of a person’s age or circumstances, their brain and nervous system are capable of healing, change, and growth. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that neuroplastic changes can go in either a positive or negative direction.
The type, strength, and frequency of neurological inputs ultimately determine whether the brain and nervous system regenerate and grow stronger or grow weaker and more dysfunctional. There are two important concepts that illustrate this phenomenon: specificity of adaptation and learned disuse. Understanding how they work is especially important in the context of a neurological approach to rehab.
Specificity of adaptation
Specificity of adaptation is the notion that the brain and nervous system respond and change according to the nature of the demands on the body. In other words, specificity of adaptation is the idea that our bodies are always adjusting to get better at doing exactly what we’re doing.
For example, if someone spends hours every day sitting in a hunched position over their computer, they’ll actually “get better” at maintaining that posture over time. Eventually, their spine will remodel, and their nervous system will learn to hold their muscles in that stooped posture, leaving them stuck in a hunched position even when they’re away from the computer.
Specificity of adaptation makes it possible to rebuild damaged neural pathways as well as create new ones—so long as there’s adequate stimulation. In response to consistent challenges, the brain and nervous system regenerate and grow. This is the bright side of neuroplasticity.
In the meantime, learned disuse is an example of specificity of adaptation that describes the dark side of neuroplasticity. The phrase “use it or lose it” is one way to sum up learned disuse.
If someone moves certain areas of the body less and less, the brain responds by downregulating the corresponding nerve pathways. As a result, these neural pathways tend to weaken over time—and the diminished nerve signals also cause muscles to atrophy. Because of learned disuse, these muscles, and the corresponding neural pathways, also lose their place in the neurological hierarchy.
In other words, since the brain’s real estate is limited, and different areas of the brain are constantly competing for space, learned disuse causes underutilized parts of the brain to shut down while neighboring areas become more active. The results? Patients lose strength and range of motion in the parts of the body that correspond with underused areas of the brain.
Besides recognizing the bright and dark sides of neuroplasticity, it’s also important to understand that neuroplastic change takes time, especially when it comes to neurological injuries or diseases.
With neurological patients, there’s usually a structural (hardware) as well as a functional (software) component to the injury or challenge. And neuroplastic changes can affect both. In MS patients sometimes the body can actually heal damaged hardware by rebuilding the myelin sheath – the insulating layer around nerve fibers that helps them conduct signals. It’s also the tissue that gets attacked by the immune system in MS patients. Structural changes take longer to heal, wherever they are in the body.
For people dealing with neurological challenges of any kind, creating positive neuroplastic changes takes a massive amount of work. To achieve the amount of neural reorganization required after a stroke, for example, a patient has to invest the same amount of training time and effort as someone training to compete in professional sports. In some cases, we may not be able to repair the hardware. For any recovery to happen in these stroke or brain injury patients, the body may have to make software changes, using other parts of the brain to compensate for the damaged area(s).
By integrating both the type and degree of stimulation required to drive positive neuroplastic changes, the NeuFit treatment approach can often help people achieve these changes more efficiently and effectively than conventional approaches to rehab.
The NeuFit treatment approach is designed to tap into a patient’s existing reservoir of physical function. For this reason, as with patients recovering from injury, surgery, and chronic pain, it can help patients coping with neurological conditions make functional changes relatively quickly.
Let’s charge forward to better outcomes together!