Health Watch -- Learning to Walk Again

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Robots may be the key to helping people with spinal cord injuries learn to walk again.

Patients with some spinal cord injuries may be able to walk again by retraining the brain and spinal cord to signal the body to move. This has been done manually by suspending patients in a harness over a treadmill, with therapists moving patients' hips and legs in a walking motion. It's physically demanding for both patients and therapists, and sometimes doesn't overcome the spasticity in the patient's limbs so that real gait training is achieved.

Now doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas are among a few in the nation to use robotic technology for gait training. Patients' hips and legs are strapped into a robotic exoskeleton. The robot then simulates a fluid walking motion, while a computer records and graphs precise measurements to help track progress.

Dr. Keith Tansey, a UT Southwestern neurologist who coordinates the spinal-cord injury program, says the robot, called Lokomat, gives therapists needed feedback on patients' responses so they can make ongoing adjustments and improve the way patients step.

Using the Lokomat therapy also helps patients regain muscle tone and sensation in their legs, as well as reducing swelling in feet and ankles.

UT Southwestern doctors are currently conducting studies on ways to use Lokomat to help patients recover from spinal-cord injuries and perhaps learn to walk again. 

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May 2004

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