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Powered exoskeleton could help spinal cord injury victims walk again

After a spinal cord injury results in paralysis, injury victims put in long hours and days of rehabilitation work to regain as much mobility as possible. Many dream that technological advances will one day allow them to stand and walk again.

Those dreams have taken another step toward becoming reality as a result of the research by a team of engineers at a leading university. Though the team is far from us in New York City, their work could have a significant impact on a number of people here.

Vanderbilt University researchers have designed a powered exoskeleton that enables spinal cord injury victims to stand and walk again. They can even climb stairs. The light, compact modular design will be introduced commercially in 2014, according to an announcement from the Tennessee university.

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates that between 236,000 and 327,000 people in the nation have serious spinal cord injuries. Of that number, about 155,000 are paraplegics.

The average age at the time of injury is 41, the center says. The lifetime costs of the injuries are staggering. If someone age 50 sustains the injury, their costs average from $1.1 million to $2.5 million.

Many of the injuries are sustained on the job, in such fields as construction and transportation, while others are sustained in auto accidents or slips and falls.

The exoskeleton developed at Vanderbilt straps securely around the torso, with rigid leg supports extending from the person's hips to their knees, with more supports going from the knees to the ankles and feet. The joints are powered by computer-guided electric motors.

"You can think of our exoskeleton as a Segway with legs," said a professor of physical medicine, rehabilitation and mechanical engineering.

One man who used it said "it's unbelievable to stand up again." He doesn't believe the devices will completely replace wheelchairs, but he thinks they're going to be very useful in many situations.

The cost of each device is likely to be around $140,000 each, the report said.

For most people, that cost would make owning one of these remarkable devices nothing more than a dream. But if their injury was caused by someone else's wrongdoing or negligence, they ought to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney who can help them understand their legal options, including compensation for medical expenses and rehabilitation costs.

Source: InsideVandy.com, "Vanderbilt research produces human 'exoskeleton'," Oct. 30, 2012

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