The equipment at your physical therapist’s clinic has been undergoing radical changes over the past few years.
While you’ll still see stationary bikes, treadmill, pulleys and medicine balls, there have been some modifications. Today, you will also find cutting-edge technology designed to help people literally get back on their feet.
“From exoskeletal braces to nanofiber suits, new technologies aim to restore functionality,” writes Gisele Peterson in The Futurist, a magazine of forecasts, trends and ideas about the future. While her article specifically deals with neurological rehabilitation, it is becoming commonplace for equipment — across the board — to include robotic and functional electrical stimulation (FES) technology.
Below are a few examples of this new generation of rehab technology.
An anti-gravity treadmill, such as the AlterG, is one such piece of standard rehab equipment that has been made better by technology. The anti-gravity feature allows non- to low-weight bearing movement much earlier in the rehabilitation process, which helps people get back on their feet as soon as physically possible.
The AlterG treadmill uses “differential air pressure unweighting technology.” This can reduce a person’s body weight by as much as 80 percent, making it very low-impact and reducing joint stress considerably.
You don’t have to be injured or recovering from surgery to benefit from use of an anti-gravity treadmill, either. People who are overweight, for instance, and have difficulty exercising due to joint pain can benefit from the technology.
In fact, the head coach of the Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar, a former world-class long-distance runner himself, uses the anti-gravity treadmill in his athletes’ training regimens. With the reduced impact on their joints and muscles, the team experiences far fewer injuries.
Therapists at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Center for Advanced Technology and Robotic Rehabilitation regularly implement new technology to help children and teens recover from injuries or disorders that hinder their motor skills. From body-weight support and biofeedback devices to robotic assistance and functional electrical stimulation, the center specifically has an AlterG treadmill in its rehab rooms alongside an Ekso Robotic Exoskeleton.
Exoskeletal devices use electric motors and sensors for body positioning in standing and stepping. Peterson quotes Brad Aiken, director of Rehabilitative Medicine at Baptist Hospital in Miami, who says these machines can change lives by, for example, “allowing a formerly wheelchair-bound person to stand, walk, and climb stairs.”
Project Walk Paralysis Recovery Centers is another rehabilitation program that incorporates high-tech rehab equipment and approaches. It’s an activity-based recovery program, and the center claims that approximately 70% of its patients improve their function below their level of injury. Teaming up with ReWalk Robotics, the program makes use of the exoskeleton. In addition, the program offers:
- virtual consultations,
- online access to 150 exercises,
- and use customized videos for at-home training programs (with little to no equipment needed).
Another rehabilitation center, Craig Hospital in Denver, specializes in neuro-rehab and research into spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. The not-for-profit center has treated more than 30,000 patients with these types of injuries since 1956, and implements cutting-edge rehab equipment including the Ekso, ZeroG and Lokomat (a robotic locomotor training system that uses a harness and treadmill).
In fact, in 2013 it successfully ran a Hope for Rehabilitation crowdfunding campaign so that patients who could not otherwise afford these therapies would be able to benefit from them.
Technological advances in rehab are not limited to devices such as treadmills and exoskeletons, of course. For instance, FutureCare, a rehabilitation facility that started in Maryland and now has 13 centers around the nation, makes use of a “computer generated interactive environment.” Jay Mutchnik, Vice President of Rehab at FutureCare, explains that “this specific technology uses a 3D camera and specialized computer software to track the patient’s precise movements and then allows them to interact in a virtual world.”
Then, there’s new and improved laser therapy.
While laser therapy has been around for at least a decade or more, two of Louisiana State University’s athletic trainers call Class IV laser therapy “a completely different kind of technology.”
“The ability to treat deep tissue structures fast was a game-changer,” director of athletic training Jack Marucci and senior associate athletic training Andy Barker write at Advance Healthcare Network.
“We quickly grew to realize that with the advent of deep-tissue laser, we’ve moved past modalities such as muscle stimulation and ultrasound. These work well as short-term fixes, but for a more lasting impact, we’re moving on to new modalities. Powerful laser therapy is one of these options, because of its ability to provide more consistent results over time.”
It’s the speed of recuperation from injury that is the true benefit to professional athletes, their trainers and coaches.
The makers of Lightforce lasers quote the head athletic trainer of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team: “We have been using the laser successfully to treat conditions such as plantar fasciitis, hamstring pulls, and other nagging injuries. The treatment times are fast and the results are obvious. The laser is instrumental in getting players back on the field earlier than expected after severe injury.”
Assistive Technologies for Everyone
There are also products designed to make our technological products easier to work with. For instance, Handable is a simple device that can be useful for people with hand-strength or mobility issues. It just sticks onto a phone or tablet, and helps the user hold the device more easily and securely.
While products such as Handable are not necessarily developed as rehab equipment, RESNA, the Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society, has noted that a “growing number of people who do not consider themselves as having a disability using technologies that could be considered ‘assistive.'”
The organization, which promotes the health and well-being of people with disabilities through increasing access to technology solutions give the example of curb cuts, designed for wheelchair users and seen in every American neighborhood. Of course, these dips in the sidewalks are used by parents pushing baby strollers as well as kids on scooters, bikes and skateboards. Your local gym probably uses closed captioning on their TVs, and the voice activation on smartphones is a technology that began as one for people with disabilities who required a hands-free method of accessing their device.
Smartphone apps come into play with assistive technologies — for everyone in general as well as in rehabilitation-specific cases.
In a recent Healthcare IT News article, Sherree Geyer looks at a 2014 Mayo Clinic study, which showed that cardiac rehab patients who, in addition to participating in the rehabilitation program, used smartphone apps to record weight and blood pressure, “lowered cardiovascular risk factors and 90-day readmissions.” She added that “according to the study, [only] 20 percent of the app-user patients experienced readmission compared to 60 percent of patients who completed rehab only.”