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How technology is helping rehabilitation in stroke patients

Posted January 29, 2020 5:00 a.m. EST

Hillcrest is one of only two providers in the state that offers Bionic Leg technology to assist in the innovative and accelerated rehabilitation of stroke patients. (Photo Courtesy of Hillcrest)

This article was written for our sponsor, Hillcrest.​​​​​​​

People don't plan for a stroke. In almost all cases, the first sign of a stroke is when it happens. However, if you have suffered from a stroke and its subsequent symptoms, you can plan a course of action for your rehabilitation.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of disability. Some common symptoms include face drooping, weak or paralyzed muscles, slurred speech, or vision problems. Many stroke patients struggling with disability as a result of stroke and its symptoms have found care and comfort at Hillcrest Raleigh, a Triangle-based nursing and rehabilitation center.

Hillcrest is one of only two providers in the state that offers Bionic Leg technology to assist in the innovative and accelerated rehabilitation of stroke patients.

The Bionic Leg is a state-of-the-art technology designed to increase a person's mobility. It allows stroke victims the ability to regain the strength of their lower bodies so they can walk sooner than traditional, non-technology supported mobility therapy.

"We see a lot of stroke patients here," explained Kristin Brininger, the director of rehabilitation at Hillcrest. "We use the Bionic Leg to literally support patients as they work to regain strength and functionality. It helps retrain their muscles, do transfers, and once patients get a little more independent, help with walking as well."

A common side effect of stroke is muscular numbness, weakness or even paralysis. Stroke occurs when a blood vessel that is carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain is blocked or bursts. When blood flow and oxygen transfer to the brain is interrupted, neither can reach the region of the brain that controls specific body functions like muscle movements, and a patient's legs, for example, may not work properly.

This is where the Bionic Leg comes in.

"The Bionic Leg is going to give [patients] the confidence and encouragement to do more activity with their weaker limb," said Deb Soares, a clinical specialist at Hillcrest. "The more you use and challenge your weaker leg, the more potential you have to regain strength and function in it."

There's two pieces of the Bionic Leg — the part that's placed over a patient's pants while they're in a seated position and a sensor that's placed in their shoe. The sensor detects how much weight is being placed on it, informing the sensor when to turn on the Bionic Leg for assistance and when to shut it off.

After a neurological event like a stroke, the brain tends to favor the stronger side of the body, leaving the weakened side in a compromised state. The Bionic Leg helps drive more use of the weak leg during all functioning activities and can assist with transfers, standing up and walking.

"When I first started [rehab], I didn't like [the Bionic Leg] too much — it weighed too much. But when I got through, I was walking. It helped me to take a step and with the movement of my leg. I realized it was helping me to walk — it was directing my foot," said one stroke patient, Durward, who preferred not to use his full name.

"I had multiple heart attacks and they were bad, but I wouldn't trade all of the heart attacks for the one stroke I've had — the stroke was devastating," Durward said. "When I first came to Hillcrest, I was kind of bewildered and shocked ... I found out everyone was here to help me. I don't know if I'd be walking at all today if it wasn't for the therapists."

Hillcrest offers patients coming out of inpatient rehab the option to continue their rehab at an outpatient facility where they have a Biodex Gait Trainer. This system uses a specialized treadmill and harness that enables stroke patients and others to perform body weight-supported treadmill training.

"This system allows patients to take off some of the weight and move a little more freely," Brininger explained. "It's usually a great transition for somebody who has previously used the Bionic Leg to use this piece of equipment. It's designed to improve outcomes for patients that have had a stroke, and relieves some of the weight off of the affected limb and allows the patient to control it a little more."

Brininger said technology like the Bionic Leg and the Biodex Gait Trainer are helpful to not only patients, but staff as well. With the technology assistance, it takes less manpower to assist patients and helps accelerate their care.

Durward said when he finally returned home — able to walk — he felt free.

"Hillcrest was a nice place to be at that time in my life. The therapists were good and [did everything] with love," he said. "They have a way with helping the person want to get better."

This article was written for our sponsor, Hillcrest.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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