Kickstart helps paralysis patients move on their own

December 10, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
An emerging technology known as a powered exoskeleton holds the promise of helping paralyzed people walk again. But these experimental devices can currently costs tens of thousands of dollars. But now, a smaller, cheaper, commercial version is helping some patients regain their mobility.

Ron Cote was a marathon runner before a back injury left him partially paralyzed with a bleak prognosis.

"That I wouldn't regain much mobility at all," said Cote.

Eric McHuron was a geologist and avid hiker before a massive stroke devastated his speech and much of the right side of his body.

"When he first had his stroke, he couldn't move or talk," Carol McHuron, Eric's wife.

But now, both men are gaining back their mobility with the help of a new device called Kickstart Orthosis. It's a scaled down version of an exoskeleton -- the motorized full-body shells that are being developed to help paralysis patients move their limbs.

"Those devices are terrific, particularly for patients with spinal cord injuries and it's bilateral. But they are also quite expensive," said Nancy Byl, Ph.D., the former director of physical therapy at UCSF.

Byl likes that Kickstart is designed to help patients who still have some limited movement propel their legs in a natural walking motion, without the use of a motor.

"And it doesn't do everything for you. If you don't do it yourself, if you don't initiate hip flexor and then you don't try to flex your knee and plant your heal, then the device can't do everything for you," said Byl.

Instead of a motor, the Kickstart employs are spring loaded pulley system. As Eric pushes forward with his left leg, the brace on his right absorbs the tension, then releases it as he lifts his right foot forward. His wife Carol says the added force has allowed Eric to walk the climb the steep hills in their San Francisco neighborhood, rebuilding his coordination and muscle strength.

"He's not hiking up his hip and walking with his knee out and his leg stiff. So those are major things," said Carol.

Cote's rehabilitation is more challenging. After his injury, he was only able to use his leg muscles in a swimming pool. But over the last several months -- with Kickstart braces on both legs -- he's taking his first limited steps with the help of a walker.

"We've been working on it slowly as my body has become used to it and now we're seeing very strong gains, I would say," said Cote.

Although the Kickstart is designed for patients to use at home, it has to be prescribed by a physician, and fitted by a trained specialist.

Since Cadence Biomedical is less than a year old, it has providers in just four cities, including San Francisco.

The price is $7,800 and insurance coverage varies. But for patients like McHuron and Cote, the device is already helping them take critical steps on their road to recovery.

"And I have every reason to believe that I'm making progress and moving towards it," said Cote.

Designers believe Kickstart could also help patients weakened by muscular dystrophy and ALS. They're planning to release data from a clinical trial early next year.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.


Load Comments