On Their Feet

An accident five years ago left 20-year old Ketch Tibbs in a wheelchair. The only walking he's been able to do is with long leg braces. Tibbs says it's not like regular walking, though, because he couldn't bend his leg and he moved stiffly.

A new device is changing that. It's called the AutoAmbulator. There are only three dozen of the machines in the country. One of them is in Topeka at Kansas Rehab Hospital. When he's strapped in to it, Ketch is flexing his muscle and watching himself walk normally. It's a site he almost couldn't believe at first.

"It was amazing," he said. "It was really cool just to see the motion. It's been over five years.

The AutoAmbulator is different than other therapies because it's completely automated. The machine supports the patient and moves his legs, rather than human therapists. Kansas Rehab physical therapist Pat Pfannensteil says it allows therapists to get the patient in a vertical position, support their weight in a safe environment, and increase how much weight bearing they're doing in a gradual fashion.

Pfannensteil says it's that weight bearing exercise that gives Ketch a workout and could help head off future problems. He says weight-bearing exercise is what prevents osteoporosis, and the upright activity improves circulation, getting more blood flow to the lower extremities and preventing complications that could lead to amputation.

Pfannensteil says the autoambulator can help stroke and Parkinsons patients improve their walking patterns. While it won't make spinal cord patients like Ketch be able to walk on their own again, Ketch says, it gives him hope to reach his ultimate goal - to get out of the wheelchair. He says he believes he can do it if he works hard.

You would need to be referred to Kansas Rehab for therapy in order to use the AutoAmbulator. They bill it as regular physical therapy time, so it would depend how your insurance covers that.

More on the AutoAmbulator from HealthSouth's web site:

Frequently asked questions about HealthSouth's AutoAmbulator

What kind of therapy does the AutoAmbulator perform?
The AutoAmbulator uses the concept of Body-Weight Supported Treadmill Training, or BWSTT. BWSTT is a form of physical therapy designed to help people who have a variety of neurological conditions, such as, stroke, spinal cord injury, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's Disease.

How does BWSTT therapy work?
BWSTT uses a suspension system to provide upright posture and create a safe environment during ambulation (walking). Using the suspension system over a treadmill while gradually increasing speed and decreasing the amount of body weight support will help the patient safely practice walking.

Will the AutoAmbulator help me walk?
Therapy with the AutoAmbulator is one part of a comprehensive program designed to help patients regain as much function as possible. Research indicates that BWSTT therapy, when used as a part of a physical therapy program, helps patients improve ambulation by retraining the brain and spinal cord walking mechanism. The AutoAmbulator is an exciting technological advance in physical therapy, but it is not a cure for walking impairments.

How does the AutoAmbulator work?
The patient is fitted with a special harness and suspended above a treadmill by an overhead hoist. Robotic arms are then strapped to the patient's legs at the thigh and ankle, which move the legs in a natural walking pattern. A computer system operated by the therapist controls the device through a touch screen panel or a remote control.

What makes the AutoAmbulator unique for this type of therapy?
BWSTT therapy is labor intensive, often requiring more than two or three therapists to support the patient and manually move his or her legs. Because of this, rehabilitation centers find it difficult to perform BWSTT often and only do so for a limited number of patients. The AutoAmbulator, using sophisticated robotics, automates this therapy, allowing patients to experience a smooth, natural human gait for as long as the therapy is well tolerated and practical.

Is it safe?
The AutoAmbulator is the result of years of research and development and was designed to perform BWSTT therapy in a totally safe environment. Numerous features are incorporated into the device to provide the patient and the therapist a safe, controlled experience. HealthSouth received permission from the FDA to use the AutoAmbulator in March 2002.

Are there other benefits to using the AutoAmbulator?
Increased muscle strength, improved physical endurance and improved circulation are all possible benefits of therapy with the AutoAmbulator.

How much does therapy on the AutoAmbulator cost?
The cost for therapy varies according to insurance coverage, geographic location and the frequency and duration of therapy. A representative at a local HealthSouth hospital can help answer these questions on an individual basis.

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