How Health Technology Is Improving Physical Rehabilitation

Ekso Bionics
Ekso Bionics/Flickr/CC By ND 2.0

Physical rehabilitation has always been a hands-on field of practice. Often, therapy success largely depends on the skills and experience of the rehabilitation team as well as on patient motivation. New health technologies cannot replace the human factor. However, these devices do have a place in modern, evidence-based rehabilitation programs. The use of health technology can improve patient outcomes as well as patient satisfaction. Not only can advances in health technology and robotics help experts diagnose and treat different conditions, these devices can also improve patient engagement and enable practitioners to scale their services and reach more people.

Futuristic Tools in Present-Day Rehabilitation

Science fiction is becoming reality in many contemporary rehabilitation centers. Robotic exoskeletons and other rehabilitation robots are being developed and are now successfully used to help patients stand up and walk again. Traditional neurorehabilitation following a stroke, spinal cord injury or other injury or disease-causing lower extremity weakness is being augmented and revolutionized. People with different degrees of paralysis now have the potential to reach their mobility goals, even years after their injury or accident.

Berkeley-based Ekso Bionics designed the Ekso suit that supports the re-learning of a correct walking pattern and gait. Made from titanium and aluminum, the Ekso suit often enables patients to walk as early as their first rehabilitation session. The wearable bionic suit fits around the patient’s body and is fitted by the therapist. Battery-powered motors replace the insufficient muscle strength of the patient’s legs. Initially, the therapist sets the step length and speed and initiates ambulation. Later, patients themselves have the ability to regulate their mode of walking by pressing buttons on the accompanying crutches or by shifting their weight. Over 40 rehabilitation facilities across the United States are currently using the suit and the exoskeleton technology is also being applied in the rehabilitation of active duty and veteran army personnel.

Rehabilitation robots can also help patients by increasing the number of exercise repetitions performed during a therapy session. Considered a ground-breaking tool used in modern rehabilitation, these devices consist of a computer-based system, which is manipulated by a trained therapist. Using these devices generally increases the number of movements the patient makes in an hour session in comparison to a more traditional “hands-on” approach. This is significant as the success of physical rehabilitation can depend on the continuity of treatment and number of repetitions performed.

Another example of an innovative rehabilitation robot used in functional gait and walking therapy is the Lokomat. This robotic treadmill is used in in- and out-patient facilities that specialize in neurological rehabilitation and offers increased therapy volume and intensity. The patient is suspended over a treadmill using a harness, and a patient’s legs are fitted into the device’s robotic legs. A computer provides constant feedback, which improves the patient’s function and therapy outcomes are often improved.

Wii-Hab – Rehab Made Fun

The Nintendo Wii and other computer-based games have been used in rehabilitation settings for a while, complementing traditional physiotherapy and occupational therapy modalities. By increasing patient engagement though enjoyment, these games make people work on their function, balance, and strengths without even realizing it. From virtual bowling, tennis, dancing, boxing — there is a range of video game activities patients can choose from to practice their fine motor skills. The person is usually represented in the game by an animated avatar and their movements are detected by a wireless remote, directed by gameplay and incorporated into the action of the game.

Virtual reality (VR) is also being creatively used in other areas of physical rehabilitation. CAREN (Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment) is a hardware and software system that can be used as a simulator to assist patients with their mobility, balance, and coordination. This is a three-dimensional virtual system that takes people into different environments — for example, walking through the forest or driving in the city. The system has been installed in various places across the world, including the New York Dynamic Neuromuscular Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy and University of South Florida.

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