William Bockenek, MD
Carolinas HealthCare System’s Carolinas Rehabilitation is offering the hope of walking again to spinal cord injury patients.
William Bockenek, MD, a spinal cord injury specialist at Carolinas Rehabilitation, said it’s now possible because the hospital is the training site for a new exoskeleton device that allows patients with a spinal cord injury to walk, stand, sit, and ascend and descend stairs.
“Patients who have paralysis or extreme weakness in their legs are looking for answers on how to do things they are not able to do because of their paralysis,” Dr. Bockenek said. “I think the exoskeleton device gives physicians the ability to give hope to their patients and to motivate them to continue on with their rehabilitation program.”
The exoskeleton technology is now being offered at Roper Rehabilitation Hospital’s Center for Spinal Cord Injury, the first location in South Carolina to do so. Through a grant from the Spinal Cord Injury Research Fund (SCIRF), Roper Rehabilitation Hospital is bringing this innovative technology to the Lowcountry region, where there is a great need for SCI resources.
Once underway, the progress of this program at Roper Rehabilitation Hospital’s Center for Spinal Cord Injury will be used for the development of research in South Carolina.
“We recognize that there is a lack of resources in this area for those living with spinal cord injuries,” said Jeffrey Tubbs, MD, a Roper Rehabilitation Hospital board-certified physician in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation with a subspecialty board certification in Spinal Cord Injury Medicine. “We’ve made great strides in providing a Center that encompasses all aspects of spinal cord injury treatment and we’re excited that this technology is now available here.”
Staff and patients are currently training with the device and recorded research will begin later this year.
The device, which has been featured on CNN and in other nationwide media, uses patented technology with motorized legs that power knee and hip motion. Movement is controlled by subtle changes in the center of gravity. The system senses a forward tilt of the upper body, which triggers the first step. Repeated body shifting generates a sequence of steps, mimicking natural gait and allowing a functional walking speed.
“Our job is to evaluate patients to see if they are candidates for the use of the exoskeleton,” Dr. Bockenek said. “The primary care physician doesn’t need to worry about if their patient is a good candidate or not. If they have some type of lower limb paralysis but fairly good function of arms, the doctor should refer the patient to a rehab specialist who can make an assessment.”
He said the role of the rehab physician is to evaluate the medical and functional aspects of the patient. “Do they have any medical issues that could potentially interfere with their ability to use the device?” he said. “Do they have functional ability to use the device? That’s what we look for.”
While not FDA approved for home use yet, Dr. Bockenek said once it is approved the exoskeleton will allow patients with paralysis to mobilize much easier within their own home and community. “They can walk anywhere,” he said. “They can walk around their office, around their home, around the community, but they may still need a wheelchair for longer distances.”
Carolinas Rehabilitation’s exoskeleton is a medical break-through, Dr. Bockenek said. “Just the fact that this is available is great because most other devices tether the patient to a machine such as a treadmill. We’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to provide this type of training to the patients we serve.”
Not only does the exoskeleton increase a patient’s quality of life, Dr. Bockenek believes it helps maintain aerobic capacity, may decrease the risk of bone loss and development of skin pressure sores, and helps keep the patient motivated.
Watch the WBTV News feature that tells the story of a pilot's road to recovery after being paralyzed in a plane crash by using the exoskeleton at Carolinas Rehabilitation.
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Patient using new technology to