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Robotic exoskeleton helps paralyzed patients walk again

Saturday - 2/1/2014, 6:45pm  ET

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ReWalk allows paralyzed patients to stand and walk by employing an exoskeleton powering movement to the hips and legs. (University of Maryland)

WASHINGTON-- It seems futuristic, a high-tech bodysuit that helps paralyzed patients to walk. But the future apparently is now.

"It's just a really a remarkable device," Dr. Henry York, medical director of spinal cord injury and assistant professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told WTOP.

He's talking about ReWalk, a robotic walking system being used at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopedic Institute. It's about one of 14 facilities across the U.S. using the system during spinal therapy sessions.

It allows paralyzed patients to stand and walk by employing an exoskeleton powering movement to the hips and legs. There's an on-board computer backpack, and motion sensors which adjust for movement. "I think it points to the future direction where the field is going," said York.

The system is designed to mimic a natural walking gait, though crutches are still necessary for balance.

Right now the suit is big, balky, noisy and expensive -- and it's only been approved by the Federal Drug Administration for clinical use. But Jean McQuaid, physical therapist at the institute who works with patients using the ReWalk, says the goal is to eventually provide the system for use in a home setting.

Right now a single unit costs about $80,000, a smaller, home unit would be an estimated $60,000, she surmised.

The doctor cautions that not everyone is a candidate for the ReWalk system. The patient has to meet certain criteria. But future research will look into what other benefits the ReWalk can offer. Right now, she added, it can also improve digestion, bladder and bowel functions, bone density and cardiovascular health.

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Tags: healthrewalk