Robotic Device Helps Patients Learn to Walk Again

Two and a half years ago, Peggy Avers was up in the garage attic getting Christmas decorations when she fell through the ceiling, landing on the concrete floor 20 feet below.

“I broke T11 and L3, and they were crushed,” said Peggy. “There were a lot of things broken in my back. There was a chance that I would have no feeling in my legs and be paralyzed, but I did get a lot of feeling back.”

Peggy can use a walker for short distances, but it’s difficult. So she mostly uses a wheelchair to get around. She’s excited about a new therapy at the ProMedica and University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences Neurosciences Center. It’s a piece of equipment called the Ekso GT, a robotic exoskeleton designed to help stroke and spinal cord injury patients learn how to walk again.

Physical therapists strap Peggy into the device, which is able to support her as she walks. The machine can detect in real time how much effort Peggy is able to give and how much motor support it needs to contribute. So if Peggy is doing 30 percent of the work, the Ekso GT will automatically do the other 70 percent to help her stay upright, and reteach her brain how to make those steps with the proper lift and gait.

“A very significant number of patients have fatigable gait, which means they start with 60 percent and then five minutes later they’re able to only contribute 20 percent. The real-time feedback and the ability of the device to readjust the function of the orderized parts is very essential in achieving the goals of rehabilitation,” said Mouhammad Jumaa, MD., ProMedica Physicians Neurology. “We also have one or two physical therapists working with you and they have the ability to control the device. So if they see that the patient is starting to fatigue very significantly and they need to adjust some of the angles or the measurements of the device, then they can do that.”

“It makes me stand completely stand up, and when I use the walker I bend over a lot because I’m using the weight of my arms to hold me up more,” explained Peggy. “But now I’m trying to make my legs do more and because it’s making me stand up it’s kind of stretching me out, where I am standing up straighter, even with the walker. It makes it feel more like walking, which I didn’t remember what that felt like.”

The  device’s ability to help patients move has additional benefits, including a lower risk for blood clots, lower readmission rates and psychological benefits. Peggy has noticed improvement since starting her therapy with the Ekso GT and is hopeful it will continue to help her regain her independence.

“With a spinal injury, there isn’t any way to tell [what functions] are going to come back and what’s not. If you don’t use it, it’s not going to come back,” said Peggy. “My hope with this is that it’s going to do the best for whatever’s in there.”

Learn more about neurosciences at ProMedica.