Virtual Reality Helping Paraplegics Learn to Walk Again


More and more, patients suffering from spinal cord injuries have a growing list of treatment options available to them. As might be expected, most of them involve intense and rigorous efforts to reclaim some semblance of the life and mobility that was taken during that fateful incident.

Yet, the medical research community appears to be inching closer to more innovative ways of helping patients recover. A number of incredible stories have surfaced in recent years of determined people who have used the latest technological breakthroughs to make tremendous strides forward, such as this paralyzed man who used a robotic exoskeleton to walk again.  

Using Virtual Reality

Taking technology’s ability to help patients heal to a whole new level, the Walk Again Project (WAP) -- part of the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE) at Duke University -- has created an incredibly non-invasive and highly effective way to aid those suffering from a spinal cord injury in re-establishing that critical link between mind and body. Thanks to the latest virtual reality therapy, the nonprofit international research consortium helped a total of eight paraplegic patients regain partial sensation and muscle control in their legs.

Remarkably, these results weren’t achieved with some cutting-edge piece of equipment only available to research teams such as the one at WAP. Rather, it was performed using Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headsets that can be found at most major retailers since its March 2016 release.

Noting that patients did not display any brain signals when asked to imagine walking, the WAP team began by integrating the paraplegic subjects into a virtual soccer field, on which they were asked to have their avatars walk around. To enhance the experience, the researchers designed a T-shirt that would stimulate the patient's forearms, supplanting them for the legs that would otherwise be brushing against the virtual grass.

Once that stage was complete, the patients were moved into custom-designed exoskeletons that would activate when the patient thought about walking. Ultimately, nerve endings began to reawaken, sending messages to the brain that allow for renewed voluntary movement and sensation in the pelvic region and legs.

In some instances, this also included some muscle control as well as restored bladder and bowel function. Yet, perhaps the most impressive instance of this was the 32-year-old woman who overcame 13 years of paralysis to, 13 months later, being able to voluntarily move her legs with a support harness to guide her.

Even though the concept of virtual reality helping paraplegics possibly walk again sounds a bit far-fetched, this actually isn’t the first of WAP’s successes. Back in 2014, the team designed an exoskeleton for 29-year-old Juliano Pinto -- a patient with complete paralysis below the chest -- that culminated in Pinto leading the opening match at the FIFA World Cup that year. It may have been a symbolic kickoff, but the inherent promise of a paralyzed individual able to come so far on their personal road of recovery is incredibly inspiring and spiriting for so many facing a difficult road ahead.

Moving Forward

As horrific as the physical and emotional effects of a spinal cord injury are, the financial cost of such an incident can also wreak havoc on one’s life in an entirely separate way. Medical costs associated with such injuries are often astronomical in nature.

If you or someone you know has been affected by a spinal cord injury, it’s certainly worth exploring the possibility of legal action that may offer some relief in this area. While many patients the world over continue to struggle with this condition, the emergence of some remarkable recovery stories gives hope to many that the strife they are facing might not be as permanent as once thought. Here’s hoping that the future only brings more lights of promise.


Topics: Spinal Cord Injury, Technology & Advancements, Research

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