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Exoskeleton Technology gives hope to Stroke Victims

Exoskeleton Technology gives hope to Stroke Victims
August 02
13:40 2016

In the 2013 movie Elysium, Matt Damon’s character wears an exoskeleton (pictured above) that makes his body faster and stronger than it would otherwise be. This sort of power suit is common in science fiction and video games, but what if I told you such technology is already being used in the real world?

Exoskeleton technology is currently used today to assist the disabled and to help those recovering from injuries. It is particularly useful in helping patients recover after a stroke.

Every year, 15 million people experience a stroke. While more than 85% of these people survive, only 10% experience a full recovery. The remaining 90% must live the rest of their lives with permanent cognitive disabilities and mobility impairment.

The treatment necessary to help stroke victims recover lost skills is intensive and unique to each patient. There are few human therapists able to provide support for such therapy – and the number of patients needing it is growing.

With a lack of specialists available, many have looked to robots for help.

Scientists at the Laboratory for Control, Robotics, and Automation (LCRA) at Texas A&M University are in the process of designing an intelligent robotic “exoskeleton” that will be able to provide numerous therapy services in clinics and hospitals as an enhancement to traditional therapy methods.

The robotic device will be connected to a patient’s back and upper arm during therapy sessions – providing movement assistance tailored to that patient’s specific needs. Not only will the device help patients regain strength and flexibility, it will also aid therapists by reducing the physical demands of their jobs.

The demand for medical care is increasing in tandem along with the increase in global life expectancy. Americans are living longer, and thus require more care during their final years.

The US Census Bureau predicts there will be twice as many adults age 65 and older in the US by 2050. It only makes sense that the amount of strokes will increase as well.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of physical therapy and occupational therapy jobs will increase by 34% by the year 2020. Unless we see increased enrollment in the field, America will face a serious shortage of therapists (as many as 26,000) by 2020.

Why Robots?

There are some things only a human can do, but when it comes to repetition, robotic systems excel. A robot can do the same thing over and over without becoming tired, losing focus, or making a mistake. Most rehabilitation exercises focus on repetition. Clinical studies show that automated therapy in such cases can even be better than traditional therapy.

Automated therapy has its own set of challenges, including:

  • Expensive, bulky equipment
  • Complex design and control processes
  • Patient trust

LCRA is trying to solve these issues by designing an exoskeleton that lighter, more compact, and better able to help stroke patients recover strength and motion. LCRA plans to have the device finished within the next 6 months, with a human trial scheduled for autumn 2017.

LCRA’s ultimate goal is to design home-based exoskeletons so that patients will not have to travel to a clinic or hospital for treatment. Home-based rehabilitation has several other advantages, but is currently impossible considering the lack of portability and the high cost of today’s exoskeletal equipment.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be how to deepen the connection between patients and robots.

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April Kuhlman

April Kuhlman

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