Objectives: To test the hypothesis that daily acute intermittent hypoxia (dAIH) and dAIH combined with overground walking improve walking speed and endurance in persons with chronic incomplete spinal cord injury (iSCI).
Methods: Nineteen subjects completed the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Participants received 15, 90-second hypoxic exposures (dAIH, fraction of inspired oxygen [Fio2] = 0.09) or daily normoxia (dSHAM, Fio2 = 0.21) at 60-second normoxic intervals on 5 consecutive days; dAIH was given alone or combined with 30 minutes of overground walking 1 hour later. Walking speed and endurance were quantified using 10-Meter and 6-Minute Walk Tests. The trial is registered at ClinicalTrials.gov (NCT01272349).
Results: dAIH improved walking speed and endurance. Ten-Meter Walk time improved with dAIH vs dSHAM after 1 day (mean difference [MD] 3.8 seconds, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.1-6.5 seconds, p = 0.006) and 2 weeks (MD 3.8 seconds, 95% CI 0.9-6.7 seconds, p = 0.010). Six-Minute Walk distance increased with combined dAIH + walking vs dSHAM + walking after 5 days (MD 94.4 m, 95% CI 17.5-171.3 m, p = 0.017) and 1-week follow-up (MD 97.0 m, 95% CI 20.1-173.9 m, p = 0.014). dAIH + walking increased walking distance more than dAIH after 1 day (MD 67.7 m, 95% CI 1.3-134.1 m, p = 0.046), 5 days (MD 107.0 m, 95% CI 40.6-173.4 m, p = 0.002), and 1-week follow-up (MD 136.0 m, 95% CI 65.3-206.6 m, p < 0.001).
Conclusions: dAIH ± walking improved walking speed and distance in persons with chronic iSCI. The impact of dAIH is enhanced by combination with walking, demonstrating that combinatorial therapies may promote greater functional benefits in persons with iSCI.
Classification of evidence: This study provides Class I evidence that transient hypoxia (through measured breathing treatments), along with overground walking training, improves walking speed and endurance after iSCI.