Exoskeletons from a variety of manufacturers enable people who were wheelchair bound to walk again. Not only does this vastly improve their mental health, it also reduces complications from sitting in a wheelchair such as obesity, cardio-metabolic problems, sores and bone deterioration. It improves digestive function and enables many patients to reduce or eliminate pain medication and its associated side-effects such as fatigue. As one physiatrist commented, “There’s a lot of data that the sooner you can get patients and walking, the better they do.” One study found that after only five training sessions, people with either paraplegia or tetraplegia were able to safely ambulate using a powered exoskeleton on a variety of different surfaces.
The ReWalk, from ReWalk Robotics, for example, is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cord injury to stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs. The ReWalker controls movement using subtle changes in his/her center of gravity. A forward tilt of the upper body is sensed by the system, which initiates the first step. Repeated body shifting generates a sequence of steps which mimics a functional natural gait of the legs.
ReWalk patient Robert Woo was able to eliminate all of his pain medication which also increased his energy levels. He has built muscle tone and his digestive system has improved. He commented, “I feel great! I look forward to being able to walk and go out with my family, hug my wife, take my children to the park, and do many things using the ReWalk that I thought I couldn’t do after my injury and being confined to a wheelchair.”
Sasha, who used an exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics after a spinal cord injury, went from not being able to walk at all, to walking unassisted without a cane for periods of time through training with the exoskeleton.
Using exoskeletons also improves work for physical therapists, by reducing load and accelerating visible and measurable results for patients. One therapist commented, “The exoskeleton gives us feedback so we can see how much the patient is working and how much the machine is assisting them. We can structure the exoskeleton around the patient’s walk and not have the exoskeleton walk them.” It also improves the overall productivity of rehabilitation units. As one therapist working with Ekso Bionics commented, “We went from taking 20 steps with 3 physical therapists to hundreds of steps with one therapist.”