For paralyzed men, sexual function just as important as walking

By Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent CNN

While practicing for a national motocross competition in 2009, Kent Stephenson’s motorcycle suddenly locked up and crashed, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He was just 21 years old and would never walk again. He was also devastated to learn that he would never have sex again. Or so he thought. Kent was part of the original four that underwent epidural stimulation at the Human Locomotion Research Center in Louisville, Kentucky. For three years Stephenson couldn’t function sexually. Then one evening he was getting intimate with a woman and to his shock he had an erection. “It went from zero to hero,” Stephenson said. No, it wasn’t Viagra — doctors had previously prescribed the pill in huge doses, but all he got was a big headache. What gave Stephenson his groove back was an electrical stimulator surgically implanted in his spine as part of a study on paralysis. The men, who all experienced varying levels of sexual dysfunction, say their sex lives returned to normal once the stimulators were implanted.

“It’s a life-changer,” agreed Andrew Meas, one of three other men who received the stimulator as part of a paralysis experiment at the University of Louisville. The men, who all experienced varying levels of sexual dysfunction, say their sex lives returned to normal once the stimulators were implanted.

This unexpected benefit of the stimulator treatment underlies a brewing debate in the spinal cord injury community: While it’s often assumed that walking again is the ultimate goal for people using wheelchairs, many of the people in those wheelchairs argue that what doctors call “secondary conditions” such as sexual function and bowel and bladder control are just as important, if not more so, and should be given a higher research priority.

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