Medical exoskeletons have gained a lot of popularity in the medical field and are a great physical therapy treatment option. Instances of health-related applications (5) for exoskeletons include stroke, spinal cord injury, acquired and traumatic brain injury. They offer benefits like improved step quality, muscle strength, and postural balance, as discussed below.
- Improves Patients’ Orientation to Midline
The midline is an imaginary line that runs from the top of your head to the point between your feet. Proper midline orientation (6) means that your brain’s left and right hemispheres are working together and not in isolation. This helps with balance perception when walking and conducting other activities. However, some patients, who have sustained an ABI, may lack proper orientation due to their injury, which leads to reduced limb and motor control, and postural misalignment. Exoskeletons help match both sides of the body through kinesthetic and proprioceptive systems, leading to an improved orientation to the midline.
- Allows For Easier Weight Shifting
Proper weight shifting allows body weight to be evenly distributed on all limbs. However, this may be impossible for people diagnosed with an ABI. (7) This is where exoskeletons come in handy. Medical Exoskeletons offer posture and limb support (8) which helps patients bear their own weight properly for proper postural alignment and blood circulation within the limbs.
- Improves Stepping Quality
According to a 2020 study, (9) conducted on adolescents and young adults with acquired brain injury, gait training with exoskeletons is an effective physiotherapy treatment option that leads to improved motor function in patients. Many patients struggle with ambulation (movement), but with the help of medical exoskeletons, they can increase their neurological recovery through movement. Dr. Karunakaran reported, “At the end of the 4-week training, participants had progressed to a more normal gait pattern, including improved loading, a longer step length, and faster walking speed.” (9)
- Increases Lower Extremity Muscle Strength
Exoskeletons amplify human strength and endurance during movement, improving muscle strength. One 2020 study (10) on the impact of a lower limb exoskeleton robot on muscle strength showed that patients with stroke hemiplegia, who trained using lower limb exoskeletons, experienced an increase in the tibialis’ anterior muscle strength compared to those who relied on conventional rehabilitation.
- Great for Repetitive Motions
Repetition in motor rehabilitation is a crucial element of recovery, and exoskeletons provide patients with high repetitions of complex gait cycles. Additionally, where a patient used to only take few steps a day with the help of a physical therapist, they can take more steps with the help of a medical exoskeleton. (8)
- Provides Support to Physical Therapists
Physical therapists can only do so much. They are human and prone to fatigue and exhaustion. A 2020 study (11) revealed that stroke patients get an average of 14 minutes of physiotherapy per day, which is less than the recommended threshold. However, exoskeletons have unlimited capacity, and using them reduces the workload for physical therapists and increases the quality of rehabilitation for patients. Exoskeletons allow for increased intensity, longer duration of practice, and increased patient engagement. (12) They also provide a chance for physical therapists to challenge their patients since they require active participation, which is known to improve brain plasticity. (13)
Diane Patzer, a physical therapist from the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan (8), says, “We went from taking 20 steps with three physical therapists to taking hundreds of steps in a session with one.”