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Researchers from across the pond at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have found that animal-assisted therapy can help patients with spinal cord injury in their recovery journey.

UAB partnered with animal-assisted therapy provider Hand in Paw to discover how dogs can ease the challenges spinal cord injury patients face during their rehabilitation.

In particular, the researchers explored how the dogs could help with some of the mental and emotional stress patients face following a spinal cord injury.

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“The average hospital stay for a patient with traumatic SCI is more than 35 days, a span that is emotionally and physically demanding on patients,” said David Schwebel, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Research in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. “Patients often experience significant pain as they rehabilitate from their injury and cope with the reality of lifelong disability.

“Because of this, SCI patients are at a high risk for psychological distress, including depression and anxiety.”

Researchers examined the effects of animal-assisted therapy on mood, outlook, pain and stress in people undergoing occupational therapy during rehabilitation from traumatic spinal cord injuries.

For the study, 31 patients with a spinal cord injury were evaluated over four sessions of occupational therapy. Before and after each session, the patients evaluated their emotions and completed a pain survey, and also had the cortisol levels in their saliva sampled to measure biological levels of stress.

Animal-assisted therapy dogs interacted with some of the patients for the four rehabilitation sessions, which were managed through trained occupational therapists. Patients were asked to interact with the dogs in ways that promoted mobility and range of motion, including reaching for, petting or walking with the dogs to assist with core strength.

The study found that stress levels decreased for participants in the animal-assisted therapy group and saw some reductions in patients’ pain and unpleasantness ratings following therapy sessions.

UAB says that these results show that animal-assisted therapy may have a positive effect on the perception of pain during occupational therapy rehabilitation sessions.

“We found that having therapy dogs present offered a little bit of help during recovery,” David concluded. “Our influence was small, but even a small influence is meaningful and valuable to someone after a life-changing spinal cord injury.

“Dogs soothe us when we are down and comfort us when we are in pain, and our results suggest they even help us after a life-changing injury. More research is needed; but we encourage Hand in Paw and similar agencies to continue their valuable work, as it seems to offer health benefits to patients.”

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