Usually the appearance of exoskeletons is on the big screen in a space or super hero movie.

Or in your back yard, as you look closely at grasshoppers or crickets. The lobster you splurge on has an exoskeleton to protect its interior structure.

But high-tech exoskeleton devices are also on the wish lists of hospitals and health centers providing rehabilitation services to patients who have suffered life-altering spinal cord injuries, stroke or traumatic brain injury.

The Genesis Foundation is seeking $200,000 in donations to purchase the region’s first exoskeleton. Genesis rehabilitation patients who have impaired mobility because of injury could improve their mobility prospects with the assistance of an exoskeleton device.

“We are very excited about what this would mean to patients. It could be life-changing for some. There would be so many benefits,’’ said Ryan Taylor, D.O., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist and advocate for the project who provides rehabilitation medicine to the inpatient rehabilitation unit at Genesis Medical Center, West Central Park.

Ekso Bionics develops and manufactures powered exoskeleton devices. Ekso says the bionic suits can be worn to improve strength, mobility, and endurance of wearers.

Variety of Applications

Exoskeletons have a variety of applications in the medical, military, industrial, and consumer markets. Exoskeletons enable individuals with lower extremity weakness, including those who are paralyzed, to stand up and walk.

Dr. Taylor said patients can benefit in several ways from the use of exoskeletons.

“Whether it is a spinal cord injury, stroke or traumatic brain injury, there is a process called neuroplasticity where damaged nerves try to regrow and restore normal function. There is evidence to suggest this reconnection process is improved with physical activity, which is why there is an emphasis on rehabilitative therapies following a neurologic injury,’’ Dr. Taylor said. “The more steps a patient is able to take during the rehabilitation process, the better the neurologic recovery.

“For many patients ambulation is quite difficult if not impossible. With the assistance of the exoskeleton, these patients are able to ambulate, which allows them to increase their step count, theoretically increasing neurologic recovery.

“There may also be significant cardiovascular benefit but the use in rehabilitation is still pretty recent so we don’t know yet.’’

Dr. Taylor said the use of exoskeletons can also reduce the risk of falls during rehabilitation therapy.

Dr. Taylor said even paraplegic patients with limited function of their legs can ambulate with the machine.

“As long as the patient has the ability to bear weight with one arm if they had a stroke, or both arms if they had a spinal cord injury, the patient should be able to ambulate with an exoskeleton,’’ he said.

Outlook Improves

A life-changing injury can result in anxiety and depression for patients. Dr. Taylor believes the availability of an exoskeleton at Genesis will also benefit the mental health of patients.

“Absolutely. A patient’s mood and sense of well-being can substantially improve when the patient can get up and walk again using an exoskeleton,’’ he said. “Many times the patients, maybe for the first time since their injury, get a big smile as they walk again.

“There is no doubt this can be a huge boost to a patient’s mood.’’

The exoskeleton will be used in acute inpatient rehabilitation on the Genesis Medical Center, West Central Park campus. Dr. Taylor said the exoskeleton is not intended as a replacement to current therapy practices, but to add to the rehabilitation tools available.

“In the future, we would love to have an exoskeleton on the outpatient side as well for ongoing neurologic recovery for patients,’’ Dr. Taylor said.

To find out how to support this project, call the Genesis Foundation at (563) 421-6865.

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