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Robotic Exoskeletons Allow Paralyzed Veterans to Exercise, Reduce Sedentary Effects
Patients have demonstrated other improvements, as well. All of the patients showed increases in mobility and strength, and all five of the first five participants were self-reporting improvements in bowel function by the end of 20 sessions.
The patients’ body composition also changed in a positive way. After 25 to 40 sessions, all patients showed reductions in fat tissue in the arms, legs, trunk and total body.
“Exoskeletal-assisted exercises appear to specifically improve body condition below the level of lesion,” Spungen said.
One of the patients, a Marine Corps veteran paralyzed in an automobile accident in 2003, is planning to use the ReWalk exoskeleton to participate in this October’s Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. If he does, he will be the first and only participant to enter the race as a runner, a wheelchair competitor and as a person with an exoskeleton.
The exoskeleton suit study is set to run until April 2014 and is recruiting both men and women age 18 to 65 who have been spinal-cord injured for more than six months, although the list of exclusion criteria is lengthy.
Spungen noted that the ReWalk likely will never replace the wheelchair but can be used to augment patients’ mobility and improve health. The patients in the study, both veterans and nonveterans, are looking forward to the day when they can have the devices in their homes, she said.
“Men and women are not meant to sit in a chair 24/7,” Spungen said. “The detriments from this extreme level of inactivity are multifold. The potential medical benefits from regular upright posturing and walking may be the largest advantage from these upright skeletons for people with paraplegia.”
A study conducted by the Kessler Foundation, a charity focused on improving the lives of disabled individuals, had similar results. The study looked at spinal cord-injured patients trained to use a robotic exoskeleton made by Ekso Bionics . According to Gail Forrest, PhD, Kessler’s assistant director of Human Performance and Engineering Research, data collected from 13 patients indicates improvement in gait and balance over time.
Patients also seemed to have improved metabolic and cardiovascular response following training with the exoskeleton. And some data indicates that there is increased activity in lower leg muscles during Ekso-assisted walking—data that needs to be examined in further research to determine potential health benefits.