Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Patients learn to walk again with help from technology

By Tammie Smith
Published: March 09, 2011

Anthony Monroe had one question for the physical therapist at Sheltering Arms Physical Rehabilitation Center helping him relearn to walk after having a stroke in September.

"If I fall, who's going to catch me?" he recalled asking.

He didn't think the therapist, whom he towered over, could catch him.

The therapist told him not to worry.

Still Monroe, 55, who lives in Church Hill, said he felt a lot better when his walking therapy integrated a new piece of equipment called ZeroG that supported most of his weight while he took steps. Wearing a harness suspended from a ceiling-mounted track that folded like an accordion as he moved forward, he said he felt new confidence.

"The machine catches you when you buckle," Monroe said.

A hand-held control lets the physical therapist change the level of support provided by the device so that patients bear more of their own weight over time.

The ZeroG is one of the new pieces of high-tech rehabilitation equipment in the new iWalk Recovery Center at Sheltering Arms' location on the Memorial Regional Medical Center campus in Hanover County.

Sheltering Arms spent $1.2 million on the center, which it is touting as a collection of some of the most advanced walking recovery equipment in the region and the United States.

"iWalk is state-of-the-art care for people who need help learning to walk again," said Matt Wilks,a physical therapist and director of inpatient therapy services at Sheltering Arms.

"It really brings to bear the best technology and expert-trained clinicians to apply the latest principles and scientific research."

Stroke patients and people with neuromuscular diseases, with spinal injuries and with brain injury are among those prescribed therapy with the devices.

Sheltering Arms patient Anita Crean, 53, is improving, her husband, John Crean, said. Crean observed his wife last week as she used the Lokomat Pro, a robotic walking trainer.

"It's not clear exactly specifically what the diagnosis was," Crean said of the illness that struck his wife last year.

"But it's a demyelinating condition where you get lesions on your spine, and it's akin to [multiple sclerosis], but an aggressive form of MS. It came on all of a sudden in August to the point where she was intubated on a ventilator and had to go to Atlanta because there's nowhere in Virginia that takes patients for rehab on ventilators."

She was at the Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta for three months and has been at Sheltering Arms since January.

Research has examined what works best to help patients re-learn to walk.

About 4 million stroke survivors, for instance, experience problems with walking, according to federal experts.

One of the largest studies to date on stroke survivors, which enrolled more than 400 people, seemed to downplay technology. The study, which released results in February, suggested that intensive physical therapy at home worked equally well as therapy with use of a body-weight supported treadmill device followed by walking practice.

The study was a "big deal in rehabilitation," Wilks said.

"They were looking at one specific intervention, applying it to a broad group of patients, but still only looking at patients who had a stroke," Wilks said.

"We were actually aware of the trial as we were planning our walking program. The fact is … technology is only as good as it is useful. It is only going to be useful if you use the right intervention on the right patient at the right time and not take a one-size-fits-all approach."

The study also showed improvements can continue after six months, previously considered a cutoff point.

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