Flip through magazines in the grocery store checkout line and you’ll find dozens of celebrities raving about the age-defying benefits of Botox. But one celebrity, the 66-year-old Henry Winkler of Happy Days fame, has taken the spotlight to commend Botox for its ability to improve lives instead of just complexions. The recent approval of the muscle-paralyzing injectable for stroke victims with upper limb spasticity is granting patients newfound mobility, and Winkler is using the story of his late mother’s own stroke experience as a vehicle to spread the word.
Successful director, producer, and actor, Henry Winkler is an ambassador to the “Open Arms” educational campaign, supported by Botox manufacturer Allergan Inc, the National Stroke Association, the Brain Injury Association of America, and several other patient advocacy groups. The main goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of the realities of post-stroke life, the debilitating condition of upper limb spasticity, and what Botox can do to help.
Affecting nearly 800,000 Americans each year, strokes are caused by a rapid loss of blood supply to the brain, often resulting in muscular paralysis or spasticity. With paralysis a muscle loses complete communication with the brain, but with spasticity communication is only impaired. The brain sends a message through the nervous system telling muscles to contract, but for an unknown reason it never tells the muscles to stop. Arms, legs, and fists of those with spasticity become stiff or clenched to the point where sufferers can’t bend joints or whole limbs, drastically reducing mobility, independence, and general quality of life.
Botox is a neurotoxin capable of shutting down communications between muscles and the nervous system, and its ability to settle wrinkle-causing facial muscles is the same basic process that helps victims of spasticity. By probing the muscles via electromyography doctors can find the hyper-contracting muscles and relax them with Botox, allowing non-spastic muscles to regain control of the limb. One treatment can bring patients three months of heightened mobility, granting them freedom to feed and dress themselves, and, in some circumstances, drive again.
Despite its benefits, two years ago Botox for spasticity wasn’t government approved, and neurologist Dr. David M. Simpson estimated only 5% of those who could use this low cost treatment were able to take advantage of it. Now armed with FDA approval and media attention, Winkler and Open Arms are seeking to turn those numbers around.
Explaining his personal passion for the cause, Winkler speaks of his mother’s eighteen-year post-stroke struggle with mobility in a video from OpenArmsCampaign.com: "My mother had a stroke in 1989 and she died in 1997 and this new therapeutic use of Botox for upper limb spasticity was not available to her. I know that if it was it would have given her hope back. The hardest thing was to watch the joy and the joie de vivre leave; she was a very active woman and all of a sudden it was just like the brakes were put on and never taken off.”
Since joining the campaign Winkler says he’s witnessed countless changed lives through the treatments, including a 37-year-old mother who was able to hug her daughters for the first time in years after only two rounds of Botox. The ability of Botox to target specific muscles is a vast improvement over previous spasticity drugs like baclofen or tizanidine which uniformly weaken all muscles in the body and cause extreme drowsiness. While money and support continue to pour in for Open Arms, Botox’s use in similar nerve disorders such as muscle spasms, dystonia, and Parkinsons are being explored. Winkler says he believes that Botox is a “gift to the world” and a “game changer” for anyone suffering from spasticity or similar disorders.
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