Introduced two decades ago for patients with neurological disorders, rehabilitation robotics is now a relatively widespread recovery method for patients.
At the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, robots are used to help stroke victims regain the use of their arms.
Exoskeletons are attached to computer games specially designed to exercise specific sets of upper body muscles. At least 500 repetitions of a movement are needed to make any lasting change.
“It adds variety to the rehabilitation that they’re receiving which adds interest, and patients need to focus on what they’re doing and they need to concentrate again in order to change to affect plasticity,” says Fran Brander, a clinical physiotherapist at the NHNN in London.
“But it’s not the be all and end all. We couldn’t just buy six robots and have no therapists, or nobody to do the hands-on stuff, because the robot won’t lengthen tight muscles, it won’t know which are the specifically weak muscles that need strengthening.”
Before starting the exercise, the patient’s ability to move his or her arm is fed into the computer. If they are unable to move their arm, the robot moves it for them. If they start to move, the robot provides adjustable levels of assistance to help out, helping the brain and arm to learn to work together again.
“You forget what the arm can do when it hasn’t been used for some time. So they teach you new skills and put you on this upper hand clinic (clinical device) to encourage you to be able to use the right arm again,” explains one patient.
While the introduction of such devices doesn’t mean traditional physiotherapy is no longer needed, it can leave the most repetitive exercises to machines, freeing up more time for other, more complex tasks by humans.