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Restorative therapies for paralysis, part 1: Advances in robotics offer hope

In recent years, cutting-edge physical therapy techniques have been trying to help paralyzed people walk again by using robotic technology.

Are these techniques still only in the research stage or are they starting to bear fruit?

They are starting to bear fruit. There are getting to be more and more success stories about people regaining the ability to walk after suffering paralysis due to an accident or injury.

One such story is from the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. A 56-year-old man who suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident has been able to walk up to 200 feet on his own by using a robotic exoskeleton that sends nerve signals to his legs from his brain. Without the robotic tool, he had barely been able to manage a few steps with the use of a walker.

For the more than 5 million Americans living with paralysis, the new robotic tools offer much-needed signs of hope for regaining movement and the ability to carry out the tasks of daily living.

The tools can be expensive, however, and there are questions about how willing health insurance companies are to make the robotic tools available to people seeking to overcome their paralysis.

Insurers' reluctance or unwillingness to pay for robotic therapies is exemplified by the case of a 35-year-old woman from Texas whom doctors said would never walk again after a surgical procedure on her spine went wrong. With the help of a robotic exoskeleton that attaches to her legs and lower back, she is able to get out of her wheelchair and walk.

She has asked her insurance company to get one of these devices to use at home, so she can go to the bathroom on her own and perform other daily tasks. But the insurance company has refused.

In part two of this post, we will continue this discussion of restorative therapies.

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