Space suit helps rehabilitate stroke patients

7 March 2008

Researchers at the Institute of Medico-Biologic Problems in Moscow have turned a space suit, originally designed to exercise cosmonauts bodies in weightless conditions, into an efficient therapeutic agent for rehabilitation of patients after a stroke.

Cosmonauts (and astronauts) that stay for long periods in a state of weightlessness and without habitual physical activity suffer from muscular atrophy, impairment of sensorimotor functions and loss of natural curves in the spine. To solve the problem, specialists of the Institute of Medico-Biologic Problems developed a special suit called the 'Penguin', which the cosmonauts wear during the lengthy flights. The suit creates artificial axial loads on the musculoskeletal frame to compensate for the lack of physical activity.

The effects of weightlessnes on the body are surprisingly similar to impairments that occur to people suffering from stroke or head trauma. Every year, more than 450,000 people in Russia endure a stroke — the most acute form of the cerebral vascular pathology, and various disordered motor functions, such as paralysis or paresis — the most frequent consequences of disordered cerebral circulation and craniocerebral traumas. Approximately 75% to 80% of persons who suffer a stroke or a craniocerebral trauma lose the ability to work and become invalids.

Specialists of the Institute of Medico-Biologic Problems have adapted a space suite to the needs of terrestrial patients and created the 'Regent' medicinal suit. This is designed to help the restoration of movement and rehabilitation of the patients after a stroke or a craniocerebral trauma.

Expensive and bulky test benches that are used to rehabilitate patients can occupy a whole room. The Regent suite consists of just a vest, shorts and knee-caps. They are put on the patient and used both as a complex and individually, depending on the degree of motor system lesion and treatment stages.

The medicinal suit foundation consists of elastic loading elements and weight-lifting recoil. They are fixed on a supporting structure, and produce controlled influence on certain muscle groups. The muscles that received the loading send a signal to the cerebrum which, in turn, gives them a response command to contract or relax. Thus, neuronal bonds (which were lost due to a stroke or a craniocerebral trauma) are restored or formed anew. The persons, who were recently bedridden, learn afresh to keep a vertical posture and to walk, but their rehabilitation goes much quicker and more successfully than patients undergoing a traditional rehabilitation course.

The ten-year clinical trials of the medicinal suit, which finished at the end of last year, proved that the patients who had done exercises every day for 10 to 15 days in the Regent suit (depending on the age — from 20 minutes to 1.5 hours) significantly increased their dynamic stability and decreased the paresis degree, compared to the reference group patients rehabilitated by traditional methods.

After the medicinal suit treatment, 47% patients could move easily, while the reference group contained only 25% of such patients. One of the clinics participating in the trials of the suit reported that patients improved not only their motor functions but also language functions. However, this effect is still to be thoroughly investigated.

Commenting on the impressive success in treating stroke/craniocerebral trauma patients, Irina Sayenko, senior staff scientist, Institute of Medico-Biologic Problems said that, according to patients no simulator provides such clear positive motivation — they overcome the fear of falling and they start feeling their own extremities. She said that this is quite natural, as the Regent suit construction contains no rigid, sharp elements that cause anxiety with the patients who just began to master walking again.

The medicinal suit itself can be used not only in a hospital department, but also for out-patient treatment, and its modular construction enables not only doctors but also the patient’s relatives to 'pack' a patient into a suit within several minutes. Certainly, the medicinal suit is not a magic means for fighting against the consequences of strokes and craniocerebral traumas.

The researchers and physicians point out that the patient rehabilitation with the help of the Regent suit is efficient only combined with traditional massage and physiotherapy exercises.

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