Every year throughout North America, there are approximately 16,000 new cases of spinal cord injuries or paralysis. From the motorized wheelchair to robotic exoskeletons, scientists and designers have been working with patients to help them regain some semblance of their lost mobility. Now, the future may well be in using this same technology in looking for an outright cure.
In April of 2016, the robotics company Ekso Bionics received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to use its exoskeleton in the treatment of individuals suffering from paralysis due to stroke or spinal cord injury. Partnering with a number of rehab institutions, the Ekso GT model has been used in numerous clinical studies involving patients with paralysis. The first phase of the clinical trial is scheduled to end in February of 2017, with the preliminary findings to be presented in the 93rd American Congress of Rehabilitation in Medicine (ACRM) in Chicago.
While the basic premise in an exoskeleton remains the same –using external power to assist motion, particularly walking—advances in technology have opened up other avenues for their potential. Models have evolved from beyond the passive, remote-controlled gears-and-servos that propelled the patient forward. More intuitive and interactive systems have been integrated by many companies, where feedback mechanisms augment limb movement, maintain balance, and even adjust during changes in stress or load.
The Ekso model takes this one step further by “teaching” patients to use their limbs again. Microprocessors send signals to stimulate the spinal cord, which help maintain muscle tone and assist patients in actually moving their arms and legs. It is anticipated that by engaging and involving the patient’s active participation as early as possible, the nervous system can begin to re-learn and regain its functions. Ekso believes that by incorporating exoskeletons in rehab protocols for paralysis, these patients can regain more of their movement much earlier and even perhaps recover from their conditions.
Receiving FDA clearance is significant because it allows for more clinical trials to be conducted. By involving larger numbers in succeeding studies, any data gathered will be crucial in determining how much benefit this product can truly give the paralyzed patient.
FDA approval can also lead to increased accessibility to these devices. The sticker cost of these exoskeletons remain high-priced; partial or total coverage can help finance the expense. With the validation of their effectiveness comes the government’s responsibility to appoint the necessary resources that will make these exoskeletons accessible to those who need it most.
For patients who have suffered a stroke, or a spinal cord injury, this can truly be a god-send; available technology that will not only help them walk again, but perhaps one day give them the ability to do so on their own.
Getting FDA approval to market an exoskeleton for rehab protocols means its potential benefits can be evaluated on a larger scale making it one step closer to becoming available and accessible to the paralyzed patient.