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Stroke Smart Magazine

March/April 2007

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The Future of Rehab?

By Jonathan Bitz

It appears as though stroke rehabilitation has found some new muscle — in a machine.

Clinical trials have been springing up all around the country to test the impact that robots can have on rehab. And any way you look at it, the potential of these robots is tremendous.

Typically, therapists are at the center of a stroke patient's rehab plan. They are on the floor, helping with arm and leg movement and holding patients up on a treadmill. But with time, robots also may be at the center of rehab, providing relief for therapists and improving stroke rehabilitation.

Dr. Elliot Roth of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago agrees that robots can benefit stroke patients. First of all, robots can help with the ability to reproduce the exact same rehab exercises over and over again. In many cases, therapy is built on repetitive movement. And robots are better able to repeat the same movements than traditional therapists. Robots have more accurate control over the way a patient's muscles can be moved. According to Roth, robots “have better endurance and can engage in repetitive movement for much longer.” He added, “The robots are much more consistent in the way they deliver the movement pattern because they are programmable.”

Of course, robots are not humans. And while they don't suffer from human conditions such as fatigue, they also cannot provide the motivation, support and encouragement that a traditional therapist can.

Robots that are being tested and used with stroke patients today include the Lokomat, the Anklebot and the KineAssist. The Lokomat is a device that suspends patients over a treadmill, with machines at the knees and hips. The Anklebot is a robot that attaches like a brace around the lower leg and ankle, helping improve a patient's movement. The KineAssist is a machine that helps balance patients and it also helps therapists accurately measure movement. Other robots are currently being tested for use on a patient's legs, arms, wrists and hands.

Robots are beneficial when a patient is having problems moving in a certain direction. Whether it be an arm or a leg, the robots can be programmed to predict the patient's slightest movement, and encourage that movement. On the other hand, the robots can help a patient create strength by adding resistance to the movement desired.

And while the hope is that the robots will dramatically improve movement in stroke survivors, the machines are also of great use in measuring complicated arm and leg movements.

According to Roth, these machines are not likely to replace one very critical component of rehab: The hands-on interaction between therapists and patients. And for that reason, robots are far more likely to become one more tool that a therapist can use to improve a patient's recovery process than to actually replace the traditional therapist. And when they become more widely accepted, robots will help improve therapy.

But for now, with the use of robots in the early stages of testing, there's no need to relocate to an area where robots are being used with stroke patients. Rather, you should look forward to an exciting and promising future for stroke rehabilitation using robots.


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National Stroke Association’s mission is to reduce the incidence and impact of stroke by developing compelling education and programs focused on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and support for all impacted by stroke.

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