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“Space Suits,” Robotics Help Kids with Cerebral Palsy Walk

“Space Suits,” Robotics Help Kids with Cerebral Palsy Walk

By Teresa Kelly

What may look like science fiction is really a true story for two young patients with cerebral palsy.

Austin Hammer, 18, of Wyoming, was born with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy. He has been undergoing therapy using a specialized compression therapy suit that originated with the Soviet space program, as reported in The Grand Rapids Press. And MacKenzie Maher, 13, is learning to walk using a device that belts her into a robot-like machine, reports CBS.

In Hammer’s case, the goal is to allow him to walk short distances unassisted, according to his doctor at the Euro-Pēds National Center for Intensive Pediatric Physical Therapy in Pontiac, Michigan.

The therapy suit consists of a vest, shorts, headpiece, knee pieces, and special shoes with hooks, all connected by bungee-like rubber cords. The cords are designed to produce tension similar to that produced by the elongation and shortening in human muscles. According to the center’s website, the suit is designed so that the cords can assist or strengthen weak muscles and correct abnormal body positions or movement patterns, including walking with the feet turned out or leg scissoring.

It was developed to help Soviet cosmonauts retain their muscle tone in space, where the lack of gravity puts them at risk for bone and muscle tone loss.

The suit is worn for 1-2 hours a day during physical therapy sessions, which is combined with enough repetition to teach patients new motor skills, said Euro-Pēds director Michelle Haney. Hammer’s therapist likened the therapy to working out four hours a day with a trainer.  Patients who undergo suit therapy range in age from 2 to 18. Approximately 1,000 patients have been treated since 2001, Haney said.

The therapy is still considered investigational so it is not covered by insurance. According to the story, the cost for three weeks of suit therapy is $6,400.

MacKenzie’s therapy uses a machine called a Lokomat, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2002, according to Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), where she is undergoing treatment. The Lokomat System is a patented product of Hocoma,, a Swiss company that specializes in robotic rehabilitation therapy for neurological movement disorders. Some insurance companies may cover the cost of this therapy.

In this therapy, the patient is suspended in a harness over a treadmill and the frame of the robot, attached by straps to the outside of the legs, moves the legs in a natural walking pattern. A computer controls the pace of walking and measures the body’s response to the movement.

The therapy stimulates the brain and spinal cord to work together to re-route nerve signals around damaged areas and restore function. Benefits of the therapy include:

  • The ability to keep a consistent walking pace, which allows the exercise to be sustained over longer periods of time

  • Strengthening muscles and improving circulation

  • Strengthening bones at risk for osteoporosis due to lack of use

To qualify for robot-assisted therapy, a patient must have some sensation or movement in at least one major muscle group in the leg, according to the RIC. Also, people with certain conditions such as cardiopulmonary disease, high blood pressure or blood pressure that changes dramatically when standing up or walking, seizures, diabetes, unhealed incisions or pressure sores, severe osteoporosis, swelling or contracture of the legs, are not considered good candidates for the therapy.

For more information about physical therapy and other treatments for cerebral palsy, visit the Cerebral Palsy Family Network.

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One Response to ““Space Suits,” Robotics Help Kids with Cerebral Palsy Walk”

  1. evelyn reid says:

    My neice has cereberal palsly and is now 45 yrs old. She gets around on her knees and scooter. Will the robotic suit wk for her?