An exoskeleton is a technologically advanced device that is allowing paraplegic people to do the unthinkable – to walk again when they thought they’d never take another step. One of the most exciting interventions to come along in paraplegic treatment, this"wearable robot" or walking suit enables people with paraplegia to get out of their wheelchairs, stand upright, and walk.
How It Works
An exoskeleton is referred to as such because it is like an external skeleton that supports the body. In fact, it is capable of supporting the full weight of a person.
A device typically weighs approximately 50 pounds and is strapped tightly around the torso. Supports that extend from the hip to the knee and from the knee to the foot are strapped to the legs.
People can wear the device over their clothing and use it to walk, move in all directions, and ascend or descend stairs. The battery-powered device allows users to walk slowly and steadily, in a similar manner to full-time crutch users.
People with paraplegia who are capable of transferring themselves out of their wheelchairs are typically able to get in and out of the device within a couple of minutes.
Not only do wearable robots help paralyzed people walk, they can also be used to retrain muscles and nerve connections among those with temporary disabilities.
Once excessively bulky and robotic looking, powered walking suits have come a long way since their inception. In the last decade, several companies around the world have developed even more advanced, computer-controlled walking suits.
Operating the Exoskeleton
Some models are hands-free and operated with a joy stick and control pad, while others have an onboard computer that observes the user’s gestures with sensors to determine what the user wants to do and assists them in real-time.
For example, if a user pushes a start button and then leans forward with the upper body, a sensor sends a signal to the computer to trigger the first step.
The user can generate a sequence of walking steps by shifting his or her upper body from left to right. Additionally, some models have arm crutches to help users maintain their balance.
Powered walking suits offer exciting possibilities for people with paraplegia, but with prices ranging anywhere from $60,000 to $150,000+, they’re cost prohibitive for most people.
However, as technology continues and production of these devices increase, prices are likely to fall. Commercial versions of wearable robots are available in rehabilitation centers and hospitals, but companies hope to develop personal versions for paraplegics to use in their everyday lives.
Prior to this happening, however, these devices must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
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