Bionic suit allows paralysed people to walk

David Kennedy with the EKSO at the Croi Building in Newcastle

David Kennedy with the EKSO at the Croi Building in Newcastle

Local people experienced at first hand this week radical new technology which enables survivors of stroke and spinal injury to take regular walking exercise.

The Ekso wearable bionic suit allows individuals who have suffered lower limb impairments, even complete paralysis, to stand up and walk.

Walking is achieved by the user’s weight shifts which activate sensors in the device. These initiate steps. The legs are driven by battery-powered motors.

The suit helps people build up their muscles so they can aspire to walking unaided when medical breakthroughs eventually make this possible.

The Ekso roadshow introduced the suit or robotic Ekso skeleton, as it is generically termed, at the Croi heart and stroke centre in Newcastle on Tuesday. It costs in the region of €100,000 to €150,000.

The suit was created in 2010, originally as a military device called a Hulc to help soldiers carry large packs, by two Californian engineers Russ Angold and Nathan Harding. It was came on the market in 2012. It was re-developed with Mr Angold’s brother in mind, to enable survivors of spinal cord injury to walk.

Patrick McStravick, the director of new production introduction with Exco Bionics, who is based in California, says people experience a “real wow moment” when they stand up for the first time. Many forget how tall they were, he adds.

“It is basically aimed at people with spinal chord injuries, strokes and MS. It has a function called variable assist. If you are a stroke patient - strokes normally affect one side of the body rather than the other - so the device can be switched on on one side. Then as the patient gets more strength it can back off and allow the patient to do the walking.

“Essentially, you get out of your wheelchair and into the device. It goes on over your clothes. Your shoes step into foot sensors and then the physiotherapist stands you up. They initiate the first steps and once you get proficient you take steps on your own.

“The suit is very light, you feel no weight whatsoever. The robot takes all your weight and transfers it to the ground. One size fits all and it is designed for people from 4’9” to 6’2” and up to 220 pounds weight. It costs from €100,000 to 150,000. We mostly sell them to rehabilitation centres and hospitals. Some individuals own one, such as Mark Pollock [the Northern Ireland adventurer who is paralysed].”

The benefits of using the suit are enormous, he says. “Some patients have constant neuropathic pain and find it goes away and stays away, people have less urinary tract infections, better bowel movements and less pressure sores.”

Jane Evans of RollingBall, the Irish promoter of the Ekso suit who was in Galway with Patrick McStravick, is keen to introduce 17 of the suits for Irish users all over the country.

“Funding is obviously an issue,” she says. “We would hope to find a fund of €2m to purchase the equipment. We aim to get the device into the community as well as in hospitals and clinics. My hope is that a particular individual would be interested in putting it into a gym or maybe community centre where it could be accessed by a number of people. They would pay to use it or maybe its use could be included in gym membership. It needs clinical supervision, a physiotherapist sets up the equipement to suit the user. Then they take them through a number of steps, they fix it to the person. There are three of four different ways of walking with it. During the first stage they use a special walking frame and the therapist controls when they take steps. In the next stages the person becomes more in control of the device.”

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