A High-Tech Rehab Revolution

“Bionic Grandma” may sound like the title of a sci-fi comedy, but in the near future the phrase might describe how a real patient recovers from a stroke through rehab. Engineers and research scientists are applying advanced technology to aid the rehabilitation and improve the living conditions of aging people with physical disabilities. 

A team of researchers based at Texas A&M University is working to design powered exoskeletons—similar to those bionic suits you’ve seen in sci-fi movies—for use in rehabilitating stroke patients. The aim is for these wearable robotic devices to help patients regain mobility in their arms and shoulders, says Reza Langari, professional of mechanical engineering and head of the Department of Engineering Technology & Industrial Distribution at Texas A&M.

“The device has to effectively hold the human arm and move it in ways that would enable them to retrain their neuromuscular system to be able to function in what’s called activities of daily living: picking up a cup of coffee, feeding themselves or brushing their hair,” Langari says.

The research and design team hopes to have a fully functional, motorized prototype built by November 2016, with testing to start by early spring 2017, Langari says. (Click here to view a one-minute video showing a student doing a demonstration using a proxy for the exoskeleton.)

The exoskeleton is targeted for use in clinical settings like hospitals and rehab centers, where they can enable a thinly stretched profession of physical therapists to assist more patients and help the patients recover faster. Researchers have discussed a long-term goal of creating a home version of the robots, “but the technology won’t be there in the short term,” Langari says.

Technology is also offering promise to seniors who may be coping with long-term physical disabilities, such as from accidents or war wounds. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies developed virtual reality games that can help paraplegics rehab rotator cuff damage sustained from years of lifting themselves out of their wheelchairs. One of the benefits of turning rehab exercises into games is that it encourages patients to keep doing them.

“Most physical and occupational therapy is very boring and repetitive,” says Skip Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies.

But with the VR game, lifting your arms turns into wrestling a crocodile, flying a spaceship or some other exciting adventure. The high-tech system is also designed to make it easier for physical therapists to monitor patients’ movements and progress.

One of the winners of the 2016 App Factory Awards presented by the Wireless Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center at Georgia Tech was the Pow!r Mount app by Blue Sky Designs. By accessing the app through a smart device, a physically disabled person can use Blue Sky Design’s powered mounting and positioning system to move items around to make them more accessible.

These kinds of groundbreaking innovations bring hope for aging people and others with physical disabilities to dramatically improve their quality of life

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Tagged with: rehabilitation, technology

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