Exoskeletons for individuals with paraplegia are helping spinal cord injury patients get back on their feet again, even years after their injury.
The future is here, and machines are playing a huge role in enabling movement.
Wondering if investing in an exoskeleton is worth it? Let’s find out!
How Do Exoskeletons for Paraplegics Work?
When you break it down, ‘exo’ means outside, and a skeleton is a framework that supports your body.
Exoskeletons are a technology that wraps around your trunk and legs that help you walk again. You also use crutches to keep you balanced.
By shifting your weight forward, the sensors in the exoskeleton help promote the movement and keep you balanced.
Exoskeletons are battery powered and can generally perform functions like:
- Climbing Stairs
Disadvantages of Exoskeletons for Paraplegia
Are exoskeletons starting to sound a little too good to be true?
Because they’re still a pretty recent development (the first one having been approved in 2014), a few factors still need to be worked out before they can be considered a realistic option for the general public.
1. Most People Won’t Be Able to Afford It
The greatest obstacle preventing spinal cord injury patients from getting an exoskeleton is the price.
These devices start at a minimum of $40,000 and can get extremely pricey, making it not the most realistic purchase.
If you’d like to try one out, it might be a good idea to check if your rehabilitation center or hospital has one.
2. It’s Perceived as a ‘Want’, Not a ‘Need’
Wondering if insurance will cover the costs for an exoskeleton?
While some insurance companies may cover the cost for spinal cord injury patients to get an exoskeleton, it’s not exactly common practice.
Because many people can get by using an assistive device like a walker or wheelchair, many policymakers consider exoskeletons more of a luxury than a necessity.
3. Not Everyone Will Fit Into the Physical Requirements
Not all spinal cord injury patients with paraplegia will be physically able to wear an exoskeleton.
Strength, height, and weight requirements will exclude many from reaping the benefits of using an exoskeleton.
For example, to use the ReWalk, spinal cord injury patients must:
- have the upper body function to use a walker/crutches
- healthy bone density
- have generally good health
- be between 5’3″-6’2″
- weigh less than 220 lbs
4. You Won’t Be Able to Walk Without It
Improvements in overground walking have been reported in studies where the main method of treatment requires partial or no assistance.
However, robot-assisted walking is considered complete assistance, because “the motion can be produced with no participant effort and with no feedback or modification to impedance.”
It’s only considered partial assistance when the exoskeleton can’t entirely produce the walking motion without the participant’s effort.
Exoskeletons might be a good idea for people with complete injuries that have little to no recovery outlook.
However, for patients who may actually be able to recover motor function, exoskeletons can impede recovery.
Traditional gait training techniques like aquatic therapy and the use of weight-bearing equipment relieve joint pressure and help you stay balanced, but they still require you to make walking movements on your own.
In contrast, exoskeleton users can become too comfortable leaning forward and letting the technology do the rest. Instead of practicing walking motions, users can develop a dependence on the exoskeleton for mobility.
Benefits of Exoskeletons for Paraplegia
Now that we got all of the deterrents out of the way, here are some benefits of exoskeletons for paraplegia:
1. A Non-Invasive Way to Walk Again
One of the benefits of exoskeletons for paraplegia is that they are non-invasive, meaning that it doesn’t require any surgery.
All you have to do is wear the exoskeleton over your clothes, which makes it a very low-risk way to regain mobility.
2. Prevents Pressure Sores
Exoskeletons get you back on your feet again, which helps prevent pressure sores.
Pressure sores occur when there’s too much pressure on the skin from being in the same position for too long.
People without paralysis get signals from the body to move around, which is why we start to feel restless after staying in one position for too long.
Spinal cord injury patients don’t realize that they need to shift positions because they don’t receive the signals from the body.
3. Reduces Muscle Atrophy
Our bodies aren’t meant to be sedentary for long periods.
Muscle atrophy is when your muscles shrink from disuse. Think ‘use it or lose it.’
Exoskeletons help prevent muscle atrophy by keeping people on their feet and using their leg muscles.
They don’t necessarily activate muscle contractions, but the stimulation and weight-bearing qualities of walking with an exoskeleton can help build muscle density.
4. Improves Circulation
An exoskeleton will allow you to move more which is essential for heart health.
Many SCI patients experience low blood pressure due to physical inactivity.
This can cause blood to pool in your extremities, which reduces overall blood flow.
Blood is essential for the functioning of your organ systems because it supplies oxygen and other nutrients that fuel cell activity.
5. Promotes Hope and Positive Thinking
The most important benefit of exoskeletons for paraplegia is the hope they provide to users.
Exoskeletons are allowing SCI patients who’ve been told that they’ll never walk again the ability to walk.
This not only enables them to become more independent but also so much more confident in their day-to-day lives.
Due to many neurologic factors, the spinal cord can’t heal itself as easily as the rest of the body. This is why the recovery outlook for complete spinal cord injury patients has always been much lower than for those with incomplete injuries.
Exoskeletons can help complete SCI patients recover more mobility than they ever thought possible. Instead of treating the injury, exoskeletons focus on promoting movement despite the injury.
Are Exoskeletons for Paraplegics Worth It?
Need to see it to believe it? Check out this TEDTalk where Amanda gets into her exoskeleton and is able to walk again.
Every spinal cord injury patient wants to be able to walk again, and exoskeletons can help more people do so.
Now that you know what the pros and cons of exoskeletons for paraplegia are, do you think they’re worth the investment?