Robot's arm helps people walk again

A robot that enables people to take a load off their feet could benefit victims of hip fractures, spinal disorders or back injuries as they rediscover the art of walking.

Although it is being used at 40 nursing homes, hospitals and rehabilitation hospitals in Japan, a model now in place at the Bennett Institute for Sports Medicine at Children's Hospital is the first to be tried in the United States.


Research on 20 patients will soon be conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers working at a biomechanics laboratory at Bennett. They hope to see whether the machine reduces pain, increases the patients' tolerance for exercise and helps improve heart and lung functions through exercise.

The machine, Rehabot, can be programmed to take any amount of weight off a patient's feet and legs, making it possible for the person to walk confidently and do so without the assistance of aides.


"It provides a prescribed amount of weight bearing, so rehabilitation can be [geared] to the patient's needs," said Dr. Edmund Chao, director of orthopedic research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

He said the machine could have psychological as well as physical benefits for the recovering patient.

"To get a patient in an upright position increases self-esteem," he said.

The Japanese firm that markets it -- Japan EM Co. of Hamamatsu City -- had intended to give the $80,000 robot as a gift to the Mayo Clinic of Rochester, Minn. But the machine went instead to Johns Hopkins when Dr. Chao, who had been based at Mayo, took his new position in Baltimore.

Rehabot puts patients on a circular course around an aluminum guardrail. It consists of a central robot and a large overhanging arm that can lift a patient out of a wheelchair and provide varying amounts of upper-body support during exercise.

The support can be steadily reduced as the patient regains the use of injured limbs and joints.

The patient's torso rests in a harness that is suspended from the mechanical arm. A strap prevents any tendency to fall forward. The patient must propel himself, although another robot in Japan has a self-propelled arm that provides a little oomph.

With the aid of cameras stationed around a large room, the researchers will learn if patients exercising with the machine are walking in a normal manner.


Dr. Najam Siddiqi, a Hopkins orthopedist who has worked with the machine in Japan, said Rehabot appears best at helping patients with multiple fractures, hip replacements and back pain who are eager to recover.