There’s no doubt that a spinal cord injury (SCI) can have a significant impact on an individual’s life. The spine is essentially the lynchpin for all our movement. Messages are sent to and from the brain via the spinal cord, allowing us to move our hands, sit, stand, walk and run.
But it’s more complicated than that. The spinal cord also helps to control many processes that we hardly notice such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure as well as bowel and bladder function.
While potential cures for spinal cord injuries, particularly severe ones, are still in their infancy, the progress being made in terms of available assistive technology is extremely promising.
One technology breakthrough which has gained a lot of media attention is the exoskeleton brace that wraps around the individual’s body and could give them the potential to move freely once again.
Robotic exoskeletons is an area where a lot of research has gone into. Indeed, the notion of a paraplegic walking device just ten years ago may have seemed like the stuff of science fiction. Now we have workable devices that are showing great promise.
An exoskeleton is essentially an electronic leg brace that can be fitted to the individual and will provide hip and knee movement. This is an emerging technology and the systems currently developed are quite bulky with large batteries.
Even so, they represent the potential to transform the lives of many people with spinal cord injuries.
In the future, we may see systems that are no bulkier than a pair of trousers or a bodysuit and which will allow individuals to perform functions such as sitting down, standing, walking and even running. They may also be able to assist with a whole range of movement, not just for the lower body.
We are a long way off this goal at the moment but it all certainly looks very promising. Clinical trials are currently being undertaken to find out the impact that exoskeletons have on individuals with an SCI.
One such trial by the Mayo Clinic is looked at a lightweight exoskeleton and how it can improve function and motor recovery for a small number of subjects.
The major benefits of using an exoskeleton, of course, is having increased mobility.
There may be other benefits as well. These include improving bone density and even reducing pain. There is also some anecdotal evidence which suggests that walking with an exoskeleton may improve bowel and bladder function.
On top of that, there are the improvements that using an exoskeleton can bring to mental health and wellbeing. A trial carried out by Ekso Bionics found that training improved use of their device, making walking and standing more feasible.
In a study by the Spinal Cord Injury Model System Center in Colorado, therapists also noted that many individuals felt psychological benefits being able to stand ‘eye to eye’ with loved ones and peers. Some even began to engage in more activities because of their improved mobility.
These are early days in the development of exoskeletons and one concern is whether the devices are suitable for different types and levels of spinal cord injury. In certain cases, if poor protocols or practices are used an exoskeleton could cause more damage than good.
Research suggests that the overall prognosis is positive, however, and promises that this kind of rehabilitative technology will have a substantial role to play in the future.
One of the major setbacks at the moment is the price of exoskeletons, which lie beyond the financial means of many individuals. The other is the time and effort it takes to fit these walking suits and the limited range of situations that they can be used in.
The truth is that there is still a lot of work to do in this area and a lot of clinical trials still need to be completed before we have a clear picture of what this type of technology can really deliver to the general public. While there remains no definitive cure spinal cord injuries at the moment, assistive technology, such as exoskeletons, has great potential in helping individuals regain mobility and independence.
The world of assistive technology design and implementation is fast-paced and great progress has been made over the past few years. This is an area of research and development that is truly beginning to show signs of delivering for spinal cord injury patients.
In the future, we may well see lightweight exoskeletons that can be put on first thing in the morning and help those with an SCI to perform many daily tasks that were deemed impossible following their injury
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