A leader in upper-limb assistive technology has introduced a software-driven wearable device to help patients with spinal cord injuries (SCI) achieve greater mobility.
By Shawna Persaud, Ph.D., Abilitech Medical
From Combat & Casualty Care , Q4 Winter 2021
Nearly 18,000 Americans suffer a spinal cord injury, or SCI, each year. That means that more than two people every hour may lose sensation and control of movement below the area injured from an auto accident, a fall, a sports injury, a gunshot wound, or some other incident.
Veterans, as it turns out, comprise a disproportionately large number of U.S. SCI patients. Among the estimated 294,000 patient population, roughly 42,000 (14%) were among the armed services at one point. The Department of Defense similarly estimates that the VA cares for 10-20% of all SCI patients in the country.
Not all these former service members’ injuries were war-related, but for those that were, medical professionals regard their cases as more severe and complex than SCIs involving civilians. And with nearly half of all SCIs occurring in people between the ages of 16 and 30, many live with the effects of these injuries for decades.
SCI patients who often must work exponentially harder and longer to achieve the straightforward tasks (clinicians call them activities of daily living or “ADLs”) most take for granted. To support their daily life, assistive technologies have become invaluable.
Many of these technologies help individuals ambulate, but thousands of SCI patients also have upper-limb weakness. With only partial strength in their shoulders, elbows, or arms, they can’t independently perform crucial ADLs like combing their hair or lifting eating utensils to their mouths. They rely on caretakers, now in radically short supply in our current workforce, for these tasks.
Helping Arm Movement
Recently, an innovative new powered orthotic device was listed with the FDA and made commercially available to help people with upper extremity weakness regain function and independence.
The Abilitech Assist, a lightweight wearable device assisting both the shoulder and the elbow, leverages specially designed springs, motors, and software to support individual patients without overriding their existing function. The technology allows patients to adjust the level of support they needed, using the science of counterbalance to offset gravity and make their arm, plus an object of up to 12 ounces, feel virtually weightless.
For Richard Kutt, who began using the Abilitech Assist earlier this year, the technology has literally and figuratively opened doors in his life. Kutt began serving in the U.S. Army in 1987 but severed his spinal cord in a head-on collision with a tractor trailer in 1989 as a civilian near his home in Quakertown, Penn.
Living as a paraplegic for the last 30+ years has been difficult for Kutt, but he’s benefited greatly by his spirit of determination and the care from his wife, Natalie, who has been by his side every lift, grab, and hold along the way.
Now life is becoming a bit easier for the family. Kutt determined that the Assist would succeed for his left arm in a single clinical visit.
“The device has actually saved my arm,” Kutt noted. “Doctors said my arm would be totally useless in three months to a year, but, with the device, I am getting some strength and movement back. I enjoy wearing it and it’s comfortable for me.”
A New View
Abilitech Medical, Inc. was founded in 2016 by a team of individuals experienced with upper-limb impairments. The group saw an unmet need to facilitate better arm movement and set out to develop technology to not only help patients surpass physical hurdles, but social, emotional, and economic ones, too.
SCI patients commonly experience secondary health issues ranging from cardiovascular and circulatory problems, respiratory failure, bladder dysfunction, pressure ulcers, impaired swallowing, and more. These complications, often appearing well after patients have stabilized from initial injuries, may confuse those less familiar with the condition and create additional barriers to engaging in the workforce, joining community activities, or having more and deeper friendships and relationships. People falsely assume a patient’s predicament is more than an injury and shortchange their opportunities.
Abilitech Medical hopes its technology will bring about a virtuous cycle of wellness with increased mobility that may lead to improved hygiene and function as well as social, emotional, and economic gains. Ultimately, it aims to change how the world fundamentally views and treats neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
Abilitech Medical: www.abilitechmedical.com
Paralyzed Veterans of America: https://pva.org