Robotic Leg Braces Help Paraplegics Find Their Feet -- and Might Do More


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A segment for KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" was produced in tandem with this story. Watch it here now.


For many who have lost the use of their legs, walking again can only be a dream. But for some, a futuristic new technology is beginning to change that. Capt. Derek Herrera, subject of "SoCal Connected's" segment on robotic leg braces, is one of them.

The ReWalk Exoskeleton allows this active-duty Marine, paralyzed from the chest down by a bullet that lodged in his spine, to walk. Besides offering Herrera some independence, the device may provide a multitude of other benefits.

That's because paralysis is often just the start of a patient's medical troubles. Being confined to a wheelchair can lead to a host of medical conditions, including bladder and urinary tract infections, muscle and bone density loss, cardiovascular decline, loss of bowel or bladder function, and pressure sores.

These ailments can cause considerable discomfort, require near constant medical care and even threaten a patient's life. The most famous example of this is probably "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve. After becoming paralyzed in a horseback riding incident in 1995, he died due to an infected bedsore.

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Derek Herrera, a Marine who is paralyzed from the chest down, uses a robotic exoskeleton to walk. | Photo: Courtesy ReWalk Robotics

The device's developers, ReWalk Robotics, hope that getting people like Herrera out of the chair and onto their feet if only for a few hours at a time can help alleviate these conditions. Dr. Daniel Lu, a neurosurgeon at the UCLA Spine Center, says there's reason to believe it can. "For example, standing may induce the sympathetic nervous system to awaken and be more active," he said, which could lead to increased bladder and bowel function. When a surgical patient is constipated due to medication, "we tell them to walk. That somehow restores the tone of the bowels," he said.

The Exoskeleton may help avoid bedsores by reducing time patients spend sitting or lying down. "The treatment for bedsores is to turn patients every four to six hours," Lu said. Though, patients who are mobile enough to use the Exoskeleton may suffer more infrequently from sores because, in general, they have upper body control sufficient to change their position in a bed or chair without help. Still, Lu said, "Theoretically, it would reduce pressure sores."

Putting patients on their feet may aid in maintaining bone density and muscle strength. Bones grow under stress, Lu said, and standing may put enough pressure on them to avert brittleness. Similarly, walking could strengthen leg muscles that are still attached to the spinal cord, Lu said.

"Combined with other technology, Exoskeleton is useful to address the functional loss in paraplegics," Lu added.

Exoskeleton is so new that data to support this optimism hasn't been collected. But for his part, Herrera believes he's already experiencing the benefits.

"I feel healthier when I get up and walk around. And it just makes sense. The body was not designed to sit all day," he said. "When I don't use it, I can tell there are definite changes in my body, and that's big."

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