Does early exercise attenuate muscle atrophy or bone loss after spinal cord injury?

The objective of this study was to systematically identify and assess the evidence on the efficacy of exercise initiated early after traumatic spinal cord injury (SCI) through a comprehensive search (Any-2014) of eleven databases identified studies evaluating exercise interventions initiated within 12 weeks after SCI on muscle and bone loss in paralyzed limbs and comparing with standard care or immobilization. Two reviewers assessed methodological quality. One reviewer extracted data and critiqued results according to the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Evidence body of evidence framework. A total of 2811 titles were screened. Eleven studies were included: five randomized controlled trials, four cohort studies and two within-subject control studies. All provided level II evidence with a moderate risk of bias. Two studies found significant positive effects of high-load FES-resisted stance on physiological measures of muscle. Three reported positive effects of 3 months of Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) on muscle size. Two studies found positive effects of 6-month body-weight supported treadmill training or FES on trabecular bone using pQCT.

The authors  found consistent evidence of positive effects of early exercise on muscle, possibly related to load intensity of the protocol. However, the heterogeneity of interventions and outcomes makes this determination speculative. Evidence for the effectiveness of early exercise on bone is scant and confined to measures of trabecular bone mineral density via pQCT. Transparent reporting of methods and variability of data, combined with standardization of valid and sensitive measures of muscle atrophy and bone loss, could facilitate future meta-analysis on this topic.