Scientists have developed new lightweight, soft robotic ankle-assisting exosuit that may help stroke patients walk properly. In about 80 per cent of patients post-stroke, it is typical that one limb loses its ability to function normally -a clinical phenomenon called hemiparesis.
Even patients who recover walking mobility during rehabilitation retain abnormalities in their gait that hinder them from participating in many activities, pose risks of falls, and, because they impose a more sedentary lifestyle, can lead to secondary health problems, researchers said.
To help stroke patients regain their walking abilities, various robotics groups are developing powered wearable devices called exoskeletons that can restore gait functions or assist with rehabilitation but these systems restrict patients to a treadmill in a clinical setting.
Researchers including those from Harvard University in the US have demonstrated that exosuits, that can be worn as clothing, can also be used to improve walking after stroke – a critical step in de-risking exosuit technology towards real-world clinical use.
“The study shows that soft wearable robots can have significant positive impact on gait functions in patients post-stroke,” said Conor Walsh from Harvard University. Patients recovering from a stroke develop compensatory walking strategies to deal with their inability to clear the ground with their affected limb and to “push off” at the ankle during forward movement, researchers said.
Typically, they have to lift their hips or move their foot in an outward circle forward rather than in a straight line during walking, they said. Usually, rigid plastic braces worn around the ankle are prescribed to help with walking, but they do not help overcome these abnormal gait patterns and about 85 per cent of the people who suffered a stroke retain elements of their gait abnormalities.
“It was extremely encouraging to see that an untethered exosuit also had the ability to facilitate more normal walking behaviour during overground walking. This is a key step toward developing exosuits as rehabilitation devices for patients to use outside of the clinic and in their normal lives,” said Lou Awad form Boston University in the US.
The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.