Technology helps some regain independence

Posted by Cheryl Perkins on March 6, 2012

One dream application of technology has always been to provide a way for those with debilitating spinal injuries or disease to be able to get around easier. Some with spinal injuries will recover and many others will depend upon wheelchairs for their independence.

It isn’t easy being confined to a wheelchair. There are obstacles and difficulties almost everywhere that the walking person wouldn’t notice. Stairs, uncut curbs, cabinets, bathrooms, narrow entrances, hard-to-open doors, hills and public transportation, to name a few, present problems every day to the wheelchair-bound individual.

Many people that have to use a wheelchair don’t just want to get around; they also want to be active. One local inventor we are working with has what is known as a T-6 spinal cord injury causing paraplegia and is looking to develop a better wheelchair. In spite of his physical disability he wants to better enjoy the outdoors and the four seasons of Wisconsin with his young children.

Although there are some partial solutions out there like retrofitting an “everyday” wheelchair with larger wheels to get around outdoors, those still have challenges. The user has to be continually vigilant of the ground surface directly in front of them, or else they may encounter a bump or tree root that could have them tumbling forward out of their chair.

The inventor we are working with has a patent-pending design that is versatile, lightweight, agile and maneuverable over many types of irregular terrain like trails, parks or city sidewalks. With an open access feature that gives the user an unobstructed entrance, it is easier to transfer into and out of, and can be collapsed for easy transport.

Looking past the wheelchair however, there is hope for also using technology to provide a way for those with disabilities to walk again. A lot of practical progress is being made in this area.

One company, Ekso Bionics of Berkeley, Calif., is developing functioning, efficient walking assistance machines. Their business started in 2005 by developing motorized and computer controlled exoskeletons that are made for assisting healthy individuals in carrying loads of up to a couple hundred pounds.

The systems’ design, the motors, and the operational balance have now improved to the point where it is feasible to use some of the motor’s power not just for the movement of the exoskeleton and a load, but also for balance and movement of a person’s legs. After licensing some of the technology to the defense industry, paraplegic walking assistance has now become one of the company’s main focuses.

Known as Ekso, the walking machine is currently being tested for approval by federal regulators. Several rehabilitation centers are already onboard with getting the first production units that are due out sometime this year. This rehab Ekso suit will allow patients to learn how to walk using it under a doctor’s supervision.

To walk a patient is strapped into the robotic exoskeleton and using walking sticks works to shift his body weight from one side to another while the Ekso does the work of moving the patient’s legs. Patients say that it takes a little getting used to, but once they have experienced it they are very excited about the possibilities.

At a cost of more than $100,000 per suit the technology isn’t cheap. However as with any technology the price is expected to drop as production ramps up. The company even plans on releasing a personal model in the next couple of years.

After news of a paralyzing spinal injury, the physician is almost immediately asked by the patient, “Will I walk again?” With the help of technology and innovation, the future question might become “Will I ever be able to walk on my own again?” And that will be progress.

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