UCT testing robotic suit on spinal injury patients

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In the first of its kind in South Africa, the Sports Science Institute of SA and the University of Cape Town are testing a robotic suit to help people with spinal injuries learn to walk and heal again.

The Times reports that Robert Evans, who is doing his PhD at UCT in biokinetics, is trying to work out if the robotic skeleton is any better, worse or even equal to traditional rehab exercises.

Evans is using the Ekso Skeleton, a robotic suit which has motors that help move patients’ limbs. The motors can be adjusted and switched off as the patient becomes stronger.

The report says the suit, controlled by a trained operator, is used for rehabilitation programmes around the world. It stabilises patients’ joints and helps them to stand by offering support.

Evans’ study results are expected next year but a programme at the institute is currently helping injured patients and has seen incredible results with some that are wheelchair-bound walking again. Evans is quoted in the report as saying that the Therapy & Beyond programme has “had patients start with us in a wheelchair who regained the ability to walk independently over a few months through intensive rehabilitation”.

“An example would be spending two hours a week in the Ekso and two more performing more ‘conventional rehabilitation’. These patients, however, generally come to us soon after their injuries, which increases the likelihood they will recover. After many years of being wheelchair- bound it becomes exponentially harder to get drastic recovery.”

Swiss company Ekso Bionics sponsored the R2.5m suit for the study. All 18 patients taking part have the same spinal-cord injuries and have been injured for more than a year. Half will use the suit and the other half will receive conventional biokinetic therapy for six months. Evans will then assess if one group has a better recovery. Each group will then receive the opposite therapy for three months.
Jaco Ferrieira, who was injured in a car accident 15 years ago and is in a wheelchair, said in the report that learning to stand again using the suit was “strange”. But he enjoyed the sensation of walking in it and said it felt more normal over time. Certain muscles in his legs are “waking up” and he has felt “muscle flickers” in his legs. He hopes to be able to walk again in controlled conditions.

The report says the UCT study is still recruiting “cervical motor incomplete spinal- cord injuries” and queries can be sent to UCTSciRehab@gmail.com.

The Times report

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