An exoskeleton for cerebral palsy patients can help boost walking ability by making it easier and more efficient than ever to perform the task-specific repetitions necessary to rewire the brain.
With nearly 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year, cerebral palsy is the most prevalent childhood movement disorder in the United States.
This article will explain how exoskeletons can help increase mobility in children with cerebral palsy and correct abnormal walking patterns.
What is an Exoskeleton?
Exoskeletons are wearable robotic devices that aid movement.
They have primarily been used to help paralyzed spinal cord injury and stroke survivors recover lost functions.
Unlike spinal cord injury and stroke patients, children with cerebral palsy that walk with an abnormal gait pattern have walked that way their entire lives.
The goal isn’t to restore walking ability but rather to learn a new gait pattern that can replace the irregular one.
An exoskeleton can help fill in the blank spaces that make it difficult for children with cerebral palsy to walk correctly, such as muscle weakness or poor form.
The patient needs to initiate the movement, but the exoskeleton helps with the follow-through.
Using an Exoskeleton for Promoting Neuroplasticity in Children with CP
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself.
It’s the main reason why so many people with cerebral palsy are able to improve their movements and live more active lives.
Every movement correlates with a set of neural pathways that fires together.
The more you repeat the same movement, the stronger those neural pathways become, and the more natural the movement feels.
Spasticity (continuous muscle tightness) in the legs is what causes abnormal gait patterns in children with cerebral palsy.
For example, spasticity in the calves pulls the heels up. Therefore, when infants are learning how to walk, they stay balanced by walking on their toes.
Children that get used to walking with abnormal gait patterns will continue to do so even after spasticity is managed.
Children with mild cerebral palsy can usually show you how to walk normally but won’t continue to do so because it doesn’t feel comfortable, and walking with an abnormal gait pattern has become habit.
Walking correctly fires a different set of neural pathways; however, those neural pathways are weak. Only by continuously repeating the correct walking pattern can those neural pathways be strengthened enough to make the movement feel normal and replace the irregular walking pattern.
An exoskeleton can make it easier to perform the intensive, task-specific repetitions your child needs to rewire the brain.
Disadvantages of an Exoskeleton for Cerebral Palsy
As with any treatment, there are some disadvantages of using an exoskeleton for cerebral palsy.
1. High Costs
A major deterrent for getting an exoskeleton to use at home is that they’re quite pricey, starting at $29,900.
Consider checking with local rehabilitation centers to see if they have one that your child can try out.
2. Sizing Requirements
Children will not meet the sizing requirements for most exoskeletons because they’re designed for adults.
The Trexo is specifically designed for children and comes in 3 different sizes.
Although these exoskeletons can be adjusted to accommodate your child’s growth, the adjustments are limited, and your child will eventually need a larger one, which may not be worth the hefty price.
3. Limited Research
Exoskeletons are relatively new and many clinical trials studying the effects of using exoskeletons on children with cerebral palsy are still in progress.
Therefore, established research on exoskeletons for children with cerebral palsy is limited.
Advantages of an Exoskeleton for Cerebral Palsy
Now that we got the disadvantages out of the way, we can focus on the benefits exoskeletons can provide for children with CP.
1. More Repetitions
An exoskeleton makes it easier for a child with cerebral palsy to perform lots of repetitions.
Not only does it work like an orthotic device by ensuring proper form, but it also helps the child follow through with their steps.
This will motivate your child to walk more, which promotes neuroplasticity.
This study assessed the effects of using an exoskeleton to improve gait patterns on 7 children with cerebral palsy.
Results showed 6 of the 7 children demonstrated improvements in knee extension within 6 visits. The one child that isn’t accounted for withdrew from the study before it was completed.
Using an exoskeleton does not require any surgeries!
All you have to do is put it on over your clothes.
This makes it a very safe intervention with minimal risks.
3. Reduced Risk of Secondary Complications
An exoskeleton will encourage children with cerebral palsy to become more active.
This will improve circulation, increase metabolic rate, and prevent complications that result from being too sedentary like pressure sores and muscle atrophy.
Is an Exoskeleton for Cerebral Palsy Worth the Investment?
Exoskeletons are an exciting technological advancement that could potentially be the next big thing for boosting mobility in cerebral palsy patients.
Because they are a fairly new technology, the transition from clinic to home-use could still use some adjustments.
However, if you think about the big picture, exoskeletons could really help improve your child’s abnormal gait patterns and promote neuroplasticity in a short amount of time.
Hopefully, this article helped you better understand the pros and cons of exoskeletons for cerebral palsy patients.
Ultimately, it comes down to repetitions. An exoskeleton can help make performing repetitions a lot easier and more efficient but it is not absolutely necessary.
Featured image: ©iStock.com/chudakov2