Andy Harrison is your typical Leicestershire Dad - he's got a teenage son who's now officially taller than him, and he's dreaming of walking his daughter down aisle one day - but there is one thing that makes Andy a little different - he's become one of the first men in the country to make use of the latest technologies which have enabled him to walk for the first time in 4 years. Complications arising from a tumour removal on the spine left Andy confined to a wheelchair and, having raised money with the help of his friends and family, he's now back on his feet with the help of one of the newest emerging technologies within the medical field.
These forms of mobility devices certainly aren't new, and one of the first instances of such a device in the UK was seen being worn by Claire Lomas during the 2012 London Marathon. Claire, who was paralysed in a horse riding accident in 2007, made headlines by finishing the gruelling challenge in 16 days, and raising £130,000 for the Spinal Research charity. The devices have, however, been very slow to become mainstream in the UK, following the ongoing need for testing to ensure that users would not be putting themselves at increased risk of further injury. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States only approved use of these devices as recently as June 2014. Following a recent spate of media attention, including a feature on Channel 4's 2014 season of Embarrassing Bodies, that has raised awareness of advanced mobility aids, it is expected that their use will become much more widely accepted.
Claire Lomas on BBC Inside Out East Midlands (Source: Paul Bradshaw)
As technology evolves and advances, we're seeing more and more support for the disabled, and each new introduction solidifies the fact that we're getting closer to being able to provide a seamless transition from able-bodied to restricted mobility for the disabled and the elderly. There have been reports that the latest technologies will make existing mobility aids obsolete, with no need for wheelchairs, for example, but this is something that is highly debated. While these new devices are certainly revolutionary, and can really improve quality of life, they work best when used alongside the more established devices on the market - handrails, stairlifts, walking sticks, and so on. Why? Because both types of mobility aid have been designed for differing purposes. There is, after all, a reason why sales figures for the more traditional mobility aids account for more than £200 million per year.
Two of the most celebrated futuristic aids for the mobility impaired are Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) cycling machines, and exoskeletons controlled via computers. Both types of device work in much the same way, and that's by stimulating nerves to trigger movement. For those unable to communicate with certain nerves due to accident or injury, this can be truly life changing. FES machines are typically used whilst in a sitting position, and primarily work to condition the body to hold the feet and legs at the correct angle to allow for movement. Studies have found that ankle positioning can be significantly improved in stroke patients by using FES, shortening hospital stay durations and facilitating a quicker discharge. Exoskeletons, or 'robotic bodies' and 'walking skeletons' as they've become known, allow the user to walk. The device uses sensors to determine the body's position, and stimulates the correct nerves to create movement that corresponds to the walking action.
These futuristic mobility aids are designed to offer additional support for the disabled and the elderly above and beyond the limitations of more traditional forms of support. Established mobility aids are designed to increase the level of normality with which a person with restricted mobility can live on a day-to-day basis, whereas these more advanced models focus upon counteracting the adverse health problems often associated with limited mobility, including extreme muscle weakness, circulatory problems, and reduced cardiovascular health. Exercise during periods of immobility is often challenging, if not seemingly impossible, and yet it is one of the most beneficial forms of management, especially in terms of long term immobility.
The World Health Organization states that muscle contraction is vital for maintaining good health, as periods of immobility can increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which can contribute to shortness of breath and, in some cases, could even prove fatal. However, the most prominent issue associated with restricted mobility is the loss of existing muscle. This is very much a Catch-22 situation - weakened muscles from osteoporosis for example cannot (and, indeed, should not) be used to the same extent as they once were not only due to difficulties but also due to the increased risk of injury. At the same time, not using the muscles will only exacerbate the condition. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, young people can lose up to 500 grams of muscle for every month of restricted mobility, while older people can expect to lose at a quicker rate. Newer technologies are directly focusing upon getting the elderly and disabled exercising in a safe, effective, and realistic manner, tackling these health risks head on.
In combining the more established aids with the newer technologies, a complete package is born, and even Andy confirms that he still uses a stairlift in his home, especially while he's continuing to grasp the workings of his exoskeleton, and gaining balance. Andy cites a weakness in his left arm as a factor that's holding him back from using the device more regularly, and this is an issue that many come up against. These devices can be very tiring to use, and are not designed to be used exclusively. Instead, they are intended to compliment existing technologies that combine the advantages of being able to lead a more normal lifestyle and of regular, feasible exercise. Utilising his home aids, along with his new exoskeleton, Andy is looking forward to standing proud as he watches his daughter graduate from Liverpool University in the future.