Robotics makes the difference
More and more robots are being used to teach stroke patients how to walk. But who do they help? And how much? Prof. Dr. Jan Mehrholz has evaluated studies from around the world on the effectiveness of gait robots in neurological rehabilitation. The result is encouraging. In this interview, the expert explains the current study situation and the advantages of the technology.
Interview: Mario Leisle
The current study situation regarding gait robots in neurological rehabilitation after stroke is very good overall. According to our latest 2020 Cochrane Review, one in eight walking impairments after stroke could be prevented by robot-assisted gait training. It also shows that the walking speed of patients after stroke can be improved a little by gait robots, which is new according to our current review.
Various robots are used in neurological rehabilitation. Are there differences in how they work?
There is now a whole range of different types of gait robots, for example stationary exoskeletons or stationary end effectors, but also mobile exoskeletons. For the stationary end-effector and exoskeleton devices used in rehabilitation, there are now a large number of controlled and mostly methodologically well-conducted studies. With regard to regaining the ability to walk, there are no differences between exoskeleton and end effector, even in patients affected with different severities after a stroke. This means that severely affected patients can be treated usefully with both an exoskeleton and an end-effector device.
This concerns the ability to walk. But what about when patients can already take their first steps. Are there differences then?
Yes, in terms of gait parameters such as walking speed and gait endurance, there are significant differences between these two types of devices. In indirect comparisons in meta-studies between exoskeleton and end effector, the end-effector devices perform significantly better than the exoskeletons in terms of improvement in walking speed and gait endurance. This means that patients who have suffered a stroke can walk significantly faster and longer after treatment with end-effector devices. Overall, however, there are no direct comparisons in clinical studies between different devices.
You have already mentioned the mobile exoskeletons that can move the patient around the room. They are the latest generation of devices. Are there any findings on them yet?
They have their advantages – I think above all in their role as a walking aid in everyday life. However, there have been few studies on the training effects of mobile exoskeletons and little scientific evidence on the improvement of gait parameters through training with such devices. The few studies that exist do not show a clear improvement through gait training with them. What is more, there is no direct comparison between mobile and stationary exoskeletons.
The Indego belongs to the new generation of mobile exoskeletons. At what stage after a stroke can patients benefit most from gait robots?
In our recent Cochrane Review, we found the greatest effects in the first three months after a stroke. However, there were also very many studies that showed effects at a later stage. Somewhat more significant than the time and phase after the stroke is the severity of the patient. All our analyses indicate that severely affected patients, who cannot walk at all or in some cases cannot even sit, benefit from this technology in particular. On the other hand, patients who can already walk a few metres largely on their own under supervision are unlikely to benefit from this expensive technology.
At present, such gait robots are increasingly found in neurological rehabilitation clinics, but only in very few outpatient practices so far. Will that change?
It is not yet clear whether the technology is worthwhile for these practices, with regard on the one hand to the extremely high costs and remuneration, and on the other hand to the beneficial effects, since most patients in outpatient practices are ambulatory. A big issue is the remuneration for certain services. Only if such therapies can be prescribed and reimbursed would it be worthwhile for the practices.
Thank you very much for this interview.
Stiftung Deutsche Schlaganfall-Hilfe | thala 2020/03 | www.schlaganfall-hilfe.de | Schulstraß 22 | 33311 Gütersloh, Germany | Mario Leisle