Robotic legs a step up

[attach]3648[/attach]Sarah Rainbolt waits with anticipation as attendants carefully adjust a harness around her legs and waist. She’s excited about doing something she rarely gets to do these days.

“How does it feel?” asks attendant Fernando Nicastri, as he adjusts straps and buckles around her.

“Like a corset,” the 36 year old responds, with a laugh.

Rainbolt isn’t an acrobat or a bungee jumper. The device she is being fastened to is a Lokomat — a pair of robotic legs. This effort is so that she can walk.

Manufactured by a Swiss medical company, the Lokomat is a motorized therapeutic system that helps patients relearn walking movements.

Since being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis several years ago, Rainbolt has tried all sorts of treatments to combat the debilitating disease that leaves her stiff and with limited motion in her legs. Her situation is compacted by a protruding disk in her lower back, a result of an old dog-walking injury.

From the conventional to the controversial, she’s run the gamut of treatments, with varying degrees of success. But since starting treatment in January at Theraputix, a private clinic at Leslie Street and Hwy 401, she’s hopeful she’s found a new way to help restore some muscle tone to her atrophied legs.

When she’s all suited up, she’s suspended from the ceiling above a treadmill and suited into the robotic legs — the first and one of just two such pairs in the country according to Theraputix, which purchased the system four years ago. After a few adjustments, she’s away.

“It allows me to stand up and walk without having to hunch over a walker, so I’m actually using the right muscles,” Rainbolt says. “I’m hoping that I get my muscles strong enough so that I can come off it and use some of the other equipment on my own.”

It may seem like a lot of effort to do some assisted walking, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. The robotic legs are, in fact, walking on their own. They will keep moving her legs in a walking motion even if Rainbolt does nothing.

According to Rainbolt and Nicastri, that in itself would be beneficial as a way to help her body remember the motion.

But if she puts in any effort herself, it can be instantly measured on a screen in front of her as she walks. A flat line on the screen registers the work done by the machine. Any variation from that — work put in by Rainbolt — registers as a peak on the graph so that she can see exactly how much of the work she’s doing. Sensors on the Lokomat also monitor other factors, like the motion of her foot as she completes each step, and Nicastri observes her progress and provides support throughout the session.

Rainbolt says she was cool to this form of treatment when she first encountered it.

“I was kind of standoffish, because it’s a machine,” she said. “But I did get a chance to use it and now I’m addicted.”

She’s become a big fan since then, even starting a Facebook page for the clinic.

“I saw after my first treatment that my left leg was picking up more easily,” Rainbolt says. “I thought, ‘Oh my god — that’s so cool!’

“After a couple more treatments I started to notice the spasticity was less.”

The system’s impressive, but it isn’t cheap. Those seeking treatment can expect to pay $300 for an initial assessment and then $145 per 45-minute treatment. Theraputix recommends up to five times per week initially and then three times per week as the patient gets used to it.

None of it is covered by OHIP. But that doesn’t seem to be keeping clients away.

“Demand is high,” says owner Joseph Lusito. “We have people coming from all over the country — PEI, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Quebec … We’re thinking of maybe opening another clinic out west.”

Lokomat treatment is provided here for people suffering from cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries and other ailments. Four to seven clients are treated each day, accounting for 70 percent of the business Theraputix does, Lusito says.

Rainbolt doesn’t see the Lokomat as a permanent solution for MS by any means. She’s still a strong proponent of alternative “liberation therapy” treatments offered outside of Canada. And even those treatments, she admits, do not offer a permanent solution.

However, she says, the Lokomat does get her walking again, something she hasn’t been able to do in more than five years.