Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore or improve their function. FES is commonly used for exercise, but also to assist with breathing, grasping, transferring, standing and walking. FES can help some to improve bladder and bowel function. There’s evidence that FES helps reduce the frequency of pressure sores.
FES made a splash in 1983 when Nan Davis, a paraplegic student at Wright State University, got out of her wheelchair and “walked” to get her diploma. She was powered by an FES system and inspired a TV movie called “First Steps.”
The Wright State technology soon emerged commercially in the form of a stationary bicycle (ergometer) called the Regys; users pedaled the bike using FES-stimulated leg muscles. Researchers soon noted that this form of FES provides real aerobic exercise in people who otherwise can’t move on their own; it boosts heart and lung function, improves strength and circulation, builds muscle mass, even in people with high quadriplegia.