Healthbeat Report: Robots to the Rescue

April 14, 2011 8:38:01 PM PDT
Many people who suffer a stroke will be left with arms partially paralyzed. But now a newly designed robotic brace makes regaining movement more intuitive and possibly more effective. The best part is that patients can do it at home.

"Years of therapy for my arm but never anything like this. It is wonderful," said Charles Hofander.

A stroke in 2004 partially paralyzed Hofander's right arm. He says standard therapy wasn't helping much. But soon after strapping on the Myomo simple movements that seemed impossible started to happen.

This is not just a machine doing the work. the device picks up on a patients' own muscle signals and gives motorized assistance to complete an intended movement such as reaching or lifting.

"It's reading the electrical activity from the muscle which gets the motor to activate to help them with the motion," said Vicky McKenna, occupational therapist, Alexian Rehabilitation Hospital.

Myomo stands for my own motion. At one pound, it is the newest generation of the device.

"This takes robotics to a new level because you now go from those big robots to something portable and lightweight to use as an outpatient therapy," said Ela Lewis, Myomo, Inc.

Marketing is now going straight to the consumer. These robots designed for home use recently made their debut at the Alexian Rehabilitation Hospital in Elk Grove Village. Patients tried them out and some family members looking on couldn't help but get emotional. "Those are happy tears."

The goal is home use but therapists will train patients and keep track of progress.

Virtual video games are also on the way to help with therapy. It can be used as an aid for basic tasks or as a rehabilitation device. Repetitive exercise therapy is known to help the brain relearn movement, even years after injury.

This isn't a miracle solution but a significant step forward. The big question is whether the innovative device can achieve more than a human therapist.

"You need to compare it to standard care and that has not yet been done with this device, at least not extensively enough for us to make a real determination of its effectiveness," said Dr. Richard Harvey, physiatrist, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Dr. Richard Harvey, who works with the robots, is excited about the Myomo device but says there are limits including lack of a hand component to help the fingers move. RIC researchers are now testing just such a device.

"This system actually allows you to move your hand and open your hand and turn it like you normally do," said Dr. Harvey. "We are testing to see if it is actually useful to patients."

Even with limits, some patients are happy enough with the Myomo. Sue Brownell is giving the newer version a try but had success with her older model when doing things such as dressing and cooking. She wants others to know there is hope with technology.

"The first time I saw my hand go up in the air. I will never forget that moment ever after being stuck four and a half years like this. It's amazing," Brownell said.

The Myomo is not for everyone. It takes commitment from the patient and may not be as easy as it looks. It can be used from two days to 21 years post stroke and candidates must have some movement in their arms. It costs about $5,000.


Alexian Rehabilitation Hospital

Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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