More than 17 million people suffer from strokes each year. Among these stroke survivors, roughly 80 percent have some sort of gait impairment. In addition, millions of others suffer gait difficulties related to spinal cord trauma, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. Notably, a stroke—more often than not—results in a tremendous degree of disability and functional impairment. But thanks to advances in robotics in rehabilitation, new treatment and care options exist. Particularly, some of the most exciting are robotic exoskeletons.
Robotic exoskeletons have been progressively improving over the last several years. In fact, several companies are now in this space, offering an array of robotic exoskeleton products. Though still expensive, these devices and their functionality are improving rapidly, thanks to new technologies. And increasingly, medical communities are embracing robotic exoskeletons as part of standard care. It’s, therefore, of little surprise that robotics in rehabilitation is expected to be a mainstay of patient care soon.
Robotics in Rehabilitation Aided by Technological Advances
The use of robotics in rehabilitation has always been the focus of several medical research groups. But in the past, the capacity for robotic exoskeletons to offer practical care was limited. External robotic suits were bulky, cumbersome, heavy, and failed to meet patient care needs. However, this case has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Today’s robotic exoskeletons are made of soft garment materials, are lightweight, and have a wide range of functionalities. As a result, robotics in rehabilitation spaces is expanding quickly.
Key technological advances have been facilitating the growth in robotics in rehabilitation. Specifically, electronics have become easier to use. Likewise, motors are a great deal smaller, have increased power, and are less expensive. In addition, gyroscopes and accelerometers are now tiny but designed with greater precision. All of these advances have enabled better functionality of robotic exoskeletons for patients.
Robotic Exoskeletons Offer Better Rehab Movements and Data
On June 4, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration approved the commercial sale of the latest in robotic exoskeletons by a company named ReWalk Robotics Ltd. Their soft robotic exoskeleton suit, called ReStore, can now be sold to rehab centers across the country. The approval came after ReWalk performed a 5-site research study showing the benefits of the robotic exoskeleton suit in stroke patients with gait impairments. Based on the discovery of improvements in functionality associated with the exoskeleton suit’s use, FDA issued clearance for the ReStore Exo-Suit’s sale. The said robotic exoskeleton suit costs just a little bit under $29,000.
ReWalk—which was founded in 2001—partnered with Wyss Institute at Harvard University in 2016 to develop and promote the robotic exo-suit. It consists of soft fabric, a lightweight waste-pack, and mechanical cables that enhance walking abilities. Through synchronized timing and movement assist, the said robotic exoskeleton improved gait propulsion and ground clearance. Also, therapists receive real-time data and analytics that dynamically aid rehab sessions.
Robotics in Rehabilitation Becoming Mainstream
ReWalk is just one of many companies that are now advancing robotic health care and robotic exoskeletons. For example, Bionik Laboratories—founded in 2013 and based in Toronto— promotes its ARKE robotic exoskeleton. This product provides lower extremity rehabilitation as well as data analytics that is supported by IBM services. Roki Robotics, based in Mexico, also has a robotic exoskeleton designed to help gait function for hip and knee impairments. And Axosuit, operating in Romania, provides robotics in rehabilitation for paraplegics through the use of a robotic exo-suit.
Overall, the approval of these medical devices in the U.S. has been slower than in other regions. Several companies are promoting the use of robotic exoskeleton devices in Europe and Asia. Bioservo Technologies, a Swedish company, has been in business since 2006. Its soft robotic exo-glove has been used throughout Europe and Japan for those with weak grip strength. Also, more than two dozen companies are currently in the robotics in the rehabilitation sector, from a global perspective. Clearly, robotics in rehabilitation is rapidly becoming a standard in patients’ rehabilitation care.
Better Outcomes Mean Greater Support for Robotic Exoskeletons
As ReWalk’s research has shown, patient outcomes have supported their robotic exoskeleton suit’s use as well as its cost. Because functional disability results in substantial support expenses and lost earnings, the potential for these medical devices are substantial. If improved functional abilities result from employing robotics in rehabilitation early, then they will assuredly continue to receive support. Given the number of companies promoting such products, this scenario would seem to be the case.
Based on such fact, the opportunities for better patient care by employing robotics in rehabilitation are exciting. Not only can it improve function in stroke and trauma patients, but it can also be utilized in other conditions. Researchers are currently exploring its use in response to cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions where motor function is affected. Thus, the potential that these new technologies offer looks to be very promising—undoubtedly pointing to the future direction of patient care.