The pioneering technology, known as Lokomat, gives new hope to people with paralysis, especially those with partial spinal cord injuries, by retraining them to walk. Consisting of a powered exoskeleton robot, Lokomat delivers power to the hip and knee joints of a person, whose legs are strapped to the machine. Individuals, with their upper body weight supported by a harness, are suspended over a treadmill, on which the walking takes place. Repetitive training in movement may, in time, help patients redevelop and regain functional walking patterns.
"By introducing Lokomat to the United States, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago continues its tradition of bringing the best in cutting-edge research and treatment to people with disabilities", stated Dr. David Chen, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Programme and project director for Lokomat at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "We are excited to know that this robotic technology can make it possible for some people with spinal cord injuries to walk again. A new world of possibilities now exists for these patients."
Much of the brain's control of walking is linked to neural circuits located within the spinal cord. Research strongly suggests that this spinal circuitry, even when limited, as with partial spinal cord injuries, can be functional and retrained to generate walking movements. Therapy to generate those movements advances into dramatically new territory with Lokomat, due largely to the machinery's precision.
Previous therapy for patients with paralysis relied on physical therapists, one positioned on each side of a patient moving his or her legs in a walking motion. The process has been imperfect and extremely fatiguing for the therapists, with sessions only lasting up to ten minutes. By providing individuals with an automated and standardised motion, adjustable to each person's height and weight, Lokomat allows therapists to manage and individuals to experience training sessions that are much more extensive and effective.
"This technology helps physical therapists take the guesswork out of the equation", stated David Zemon, a Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago therapist who is specifically trained in the machine's operation and technology. "We can now maximise our therapeutic treatments by giving the individual an intensive training programme while reducing the arduous and inconsistent treatment that traditionally had to be provided manually."
Lokomat offers people with paralysis other benefits as well. For instance, regular therapy helps prevent limbs from deteriorating, by strengthening muscles and bones. Also, weight-bearing exercise helps individuals with paralysis to ward off the threat of osteoporosis. As the first U.S. hospital to install and use Lokomat for research purposes, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago continues a focused commitment to pursuing the best in medical research and patient care.
Since 1954, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago has earned a worldwide reputation for its leadership in advances in patient care, research, education and training, and advocacy, all of which serve as primary components of its mission. Each year, the hospital works with thousands of patients of all ages and from all over the world who have been temporarily or permanently disabled by illness or injury. Comprehensive, customised treatments, therapies and technologies help patients to make the most of their abilities and live their lives to the fullest.
The Institute has developed unique expertise in the rehabilitation of patients whose needs are especially complex, such as those with spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke and amputation, as well as specialised rehabilitation in the areas of arthritis and chronic pain. The Institute has more than 30 sites of care throughout the Chicago area and in southern Illinois. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is home of the Northwestern University Medical School Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, one of the largest Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation residency programmes in the country.
For more information on rehabilitation robots which learn people suffering from paralysis to walk again, read also the VMW August 2001 article AutoAmbulator simulates sense of walking to get rehabilitating patients back on their feet.