Robots Aiding Stroke Survivors

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

SFA author Jim Evans is a 42-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and an internationally recognized fitness consultant. Today he describes promising innovation in the area of stroke rehabilitation.

DEAR JIM: My wife suffered a debilitating stroke last year at age 70 and still has trouble using her arms. She has made considerable progress working with her physical therapist, but many of her arm movements still seem awkward and unnatural. Do you have any advice to help her regain the normal use of her arms more quickly? WORRIED IN WACO

DEAR WORRIED: I would not want to contradict anything in your wife’s current physical therapy regimen because it seems to be working, albeit more slowly than you would like. It typically takes time to recover from a stroke, and recovery is usually measured in very small increments — especially after the first three months or so. Sometimes survivors do not recover substantially even with the best of love and medical attention, so prepare yourself for the long haul and relish even the slightest improvement, no matter how small.

But take heart, too, because researchers are constantly working to find new and better ways to help stroke survivors. Research appearing in BioMed Central’s open access Journal of euroEngineering and Rehabilitation shows some significant success using robots to help stroke survivors regain the normal use of their arms.

The researchers’ robot assists patients as they attempt to guide its "hand" in a figure-eight motion above a desk, pulling in the correct direction and resisting incorrect movements to a minutely controlled degree. This interactive assistance allows for alternating levels of help, encouraging patients to re-learn how to use their arms.

According to Elena Vergaro and a team of researchers from the University of Genoa, Italy, "Our preliminary results from this small group of patients suggest that the scheme is robust and promotes a statistically significant improvement in performance. Future large-scale controlled clinical trials should confirm that robot-assisted physiotherapy can allow functional achievements in activities of daily life."

"Stroke survivors," said Vergaro, "perform arm movements in abnormal ways, for example, by elevating the shoulder in order to lift the arm, or leaning forward with the torso instead of extending the elbow. Use of such incorrect patterns may limit their ability to achieve higher levels of movement ability, and may lead to repetitive use injuries. By demonstrating the correct movements, a robot can help the motor system of the subject learn to replicate the desired trajectory by experience."

Robots are being used in various other ways to help stroke survivors, too, so there are some exciting developments that may be available to your wife in the near future. In the meantime, please continue to be patient and supportive while your wife goes through this difficult and painstaking recovery.

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