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Merging Medical Exoskeletons with Virtual Reality

 September 13, 2017

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

Those who follow this blog space should be quite familiar with our affinity for high tech solutions to physical disabilities. It is simply logical for medical professionals devoted to managing the care of individuals with such disabilities to always be up to date on the latest developments in technology, especially when it comes to rehabilitation. Those who share our passion for such knowledge are always seeking opportunities for combining various discoveries for the sole purpose of improving outcomes for our clients. One example we are excited to share is the merger of medical exoskeletons and virtual reality for the purpose of physical rehabilitation.

Weakened limbs are the result of suffering a stroke. In order to restore their strength, traditional rehabilitation has to be sure that each movement of an exercise be completed correctly, in precisely the same fashion, each and every time.  An exoskeleton allows for a higher number of repetitions. The data provided by the user can be uploaded to a computer, and then used to evaluate a patient’s mobility. The major drawback is that, due to the bulk of the necessary electronics, they are stationary, positioned away from the user and by no means compact.

This means that users are restricted to that one position, removed from real life conditions and, worst of all, bored with the repetition. That is where virtual reality comes in. Patients who are occupied, focused and motivated will not mind if more hours are added to their rehabilitation session. Instead of reminding them of their deficiencies, VR makes rehabilitation fun and interesting, immersing the patient in an experience that allows them to forget their impairment. Patients who are not focused on their limitations stand a better chance of overcoming them.

Now consider the advantages from the point of view of the rehabilitation professional. Less instruction will likely be required due to sensors on the patient’s body translating their posture into consequences in the virtual world. The rewards are built in, resulting from pure trial and error. By incorporating VR, one rehabilitation professional will be able to work with more than one patient at a time.

As if this tech talk doesn’t already sound futuristic enough, the future continues to show up at a breakneck pace. For doctors and rehab professionals alike, there is no school for this sort of practice. The possibilities are wide open.  Already, Hocoma, a medical technology company that specializes in functional movement therapy, has come up with Armeo Power, a powered arm exoskeleton that provides additional force to resist gravity and facilitate arm movement.

If this sounds like science fiction, it is because the data is still coming in. Besides, the roots of science fiction lie in futurists and scientists who shared their excitement for imminent discoveries and inventions they knew would benefit mankind. We can relate.

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