Evidence is emerging for the use of overground lower limb robotic exoskeletons in the rehabilitation of people with spinal cord injury (SCI), with suggested benefits for gait speed, bladder and bowel function, pain management and spasticity. To date, research has focused on devices that require the user to support themselves with a walking aid. This often precludes use by those with severe trunk, postural or upper limb deficits and places the user in a suboptimal, flexed standing position. Free-standing exoskeletons enable people with higher level injuries to exercise in an upright position. This study aimed to evaluate the feasibility of therapy with a free-standing exoskeleton for those with SCI, and to determine the potential health-related benefits of this intervention.
This 12-week intervention study with 12-week waitlist control and 12-week follow up, provided people with SCI scoring < 5 on the mobility section of the spinal cord independence measure (SCIM-III) twice weekly therapy in the REX (Rex Bionics, Auckland, NZ), a free-standing lower limb robotic exoskeleton. The primary outcome measure of interest was function, as measured on the SCIM-III. A battery of secondary outcomes was included. Participants also completed a survey on their perceptions of this treatment modality, to determine acceptability.
Forty-one potential participants were screened for eligibility. Two females (one ASIA A, one ASIA C) and one male (ASIA B) completed all 24 intervention sessions, and the follow up assessment. One participant showed positive trends in function, fatigue, quality of life and mood during the intervention phase. Grip and quadriceps strength, and lower limb motor function improved in another. Two improved their percentage of lean body mass during the intervention phase. Remaining results were varied across patients, time points and outcomes. The intervention was highly acceptable to all participants.
With three of 41 potential participants being eligible and completing this study, our results show that there are potential benefits of exercise in a free-standing exoskeleton for people with severe mobility impairment due to SCI, for a small subset of patients. Further research is warranted to determine those most likely to benefit, and the type of benefit depending on the patient characteristics.
Trial registration The trial was registered prospectively on 20 April 2018 at www.anzctr.org.au/ (ACTRN12618000626268)