Life with a spinal cord injury can feel anything but lucky. Most accidents that damage the spinal cord leave the patient paralyzed or worse. And doctors still have not uncovered a cure for paralysis. Modern technology, however, is starting to create hope.
Robotic devices are slowly giving some people with spinal cord injuries a second chance at mobility. Though the devices aren't yet widely available, and the development of such devices is still in its infancy, scientists are making progress at a rapid clip. From robotic prosthetic devices to physical therapy with the assistance of a robot, spinal cord injury survivors have more options now than ever before.
Hope for Robotic Assistance
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction: a robotic arm you control with your brain, that produces real sensations of movement, cold, heat, pain, and pleasure. But that's the goal, and it's something Johns Hopkins researchers say they've already achieved. Researchers were able to craft a robotic prosthetic limb with 26 joints, more than 100 sensors, and the ability to lift up to 45 pounds. And because the prosthesis connects to the brain, moving in response to its signals, it's likely that users will eventually even be able to feel sensations through the robotic device.
By remapping the nerves a spinal cord injury survivor lost, and then redirecting brain signals to the prosthetic arm, researchers were successfully able to establish a link between the brain and the prosthesis. Though these sorts of prosthetics aren't yet widely available, the FDA is currently reviewing them. If they prove safe and efficacious, they could eventually be available to the wider public.
Where the Research Is Today
Research into robotic prosthetic devices is at the cutting edge of science, with doctors and engineers all over the globe working to find a solution. In Australia, researchers successfully enabled injured people to control a bionic hand with their brain.
The research isn't limited solely to prosthetic devices, though. Doctors also say that robotics could play a key role in physical therapy, enabling spinal cord injury survivors to recover faster by regaining greater function in their limbs.
At Colorado's Craig Hospital, a hotbed of research on brain and spinal cord injuries, doctors use robotic devices to help patients regain function. The Tyromotion Amadeo assesses the range of hand motion, working with injured people to increase their range of motion and strength. The device adjusts itself to the individual capabilities and progress of each individual who uses it, making it a potentially cost-effective alternative or supplement to traditional physical therapy.
Who is Eligible?
Robotic treatments for spinal cord injuries are still in their infancy. To be eligible to try such a device, you'll likely need to participate in a research program. Your doctor can let you know whether such a program exists in your area. If you live near a large research hospital such as Craig Hospital, you may be able to participate in ongoing research.
We don't yet know where science will be in just a few years. But a decade ago, no one thought it was possible to control a robotic arm with your mind. Now, the ability to do so seems almost mundane. All of this hammers home an important message: don't lose hope. Research is ongoing, and we eventually will find a way to treat spinal cord injuries of all varieties.
Written by Zawn VillinesZawn Villines is a writer specializing in health and legal journalism. Raised by a lawyer and lobbyist who advocated for spinal cord injury survivors, she is a lifelong advocate for spinal injury victims and their loved ones. You can connect with Zawn on Google+ below.
See what Swope, Rodante Has Done for Others With Catastrophic Injuries
“What made me most excited was to be able to help my family, being able to pull the burden out of them that they’ve been struggling with. That’s what made me feel the best. Everything else to come, is to come. And we’re going to live life how we have been, just not going to have to worry about buying the supplies that I need.”
"As I got better, which I did in the future, I think I remember researching them [Swope, Rodante P.A.] myself and found that they are very good at what they do. "