Some of the exciting advances in the field of physical therapy might make you think of The Bionic Man, The Terminator, or Robocop, but they are reality… and much more than just high-tech gadgets. Innovations in PT technology are designed to shorten patients’ healing times, increase comfort levels, and improve their overall level of care. In addition, the newest equipment and specialty apparatus allow for progressive training and career opportunities for physical therapists. Here are a few of the newest technologies and devices hitting the PT industry soon:
- The Ekso suit, which helps people get out of their wheelchairs, use their lower bodies, and fend off muscle deterioration. The Ekso, made of aluminum and titanium, actually fits around an injured patient’s body and helps retrain the patient to walk again. When a patient is first learning to walk with the suit, a physical therapist sets the step length and speed and presses a button on a computer to trigger each step. The patient then learns to trigger a step with buttons on the suit’s accompanying crutches. Once a patient has learned to maintain balance in the Ekso, he or she can trigger the suit to take a step just by shifting his or her weight. Currently, about 15 rehabilitation centers in the United States are using the suits. Cost could be prohibitive at $140,000 a pop, but if the government were able to use the suit for military applications, it could become more affordable and accessible.
- Nintendo Wii golf and other sports games have become tools in physical, occupational and neurological rehabilitation. By making PT more fun and adding an element of competitiveness, Wii golf has helped speed up recovery times for stroke patients at Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, CA. Playing the “sport” connects learning, practice and repetition. Patients are more willing to practice and maintain repetition if an activity is entertaining. In addition, the games may be shared with family members to add to the enjoyment level. Balance and movement are common concerns for those recovering from brain injuries or strokes. Other patients might need to work on improving range of motion or gross motor coordination. Wii helps with all of these issues and keeps people engaged.
- Rehabilitation robots. The American Physical Therapy Association calls Robotics and PT “ The New Age of Function, Movement, and Recovery.” Rehab robots have been proven to improve the detection of post-stroke impairments, enhancing therapy and leading to faster recovery according to a study presented at the Canadian Stroke Congress. Researchers studied 87 subjects who were recovering from stroke and found that tests done with the assistance of a robot measured patients’ sense of limb position, speed and direction of limb movement better than without the robot. Previously, rehabilitation experts relied on their own personal judgment and subjective rating scales to assess impairment after stroke. Robotic technology will standardize these measurements. Eventually, robotics will be used to guide patients through repetitive movements and be programmed with personalized treatment plans to help remap patients’ brain wave patterns and restore functions.