At age 56, Kathy Miska is fighting the devastating impact of multiple sclerosis (MS) on her ability to walk. A robotic device that attaches to her body during physical therapy (PT) – called an exoskeleton – is helping her to do just that.
Diagnosed 20 years ago with MS, the autoimmune disease that can negatively impact the central nervous system, Kathy has seen her symptoms worsen over time, especially in recent years.
Kathy is one of five MS patients at Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis to participate in a research study assessing the effectiveness of the EksoGT exoskeleton in MS rehabilitation.
“My walking speed has increased, my endurance has improved, my gait is more normal and I get intermittent periods of my leg getting signals from my brain,” says Kathy.
While the device has Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for use in rehabilitation programs for patients with spinal cord injury and stroke, this is one of the first pilot studies to determine its potential efficacy for MS patients. It is funded by a generous donor and a Cleveland Clinic Caregiver Catalyst Grant.
“The idea is to use the exoskeleton as part of PT to hopefully achieve better results, particularly when the patients can't do much walking by themselves and can’t (fully) exercise their legs,” says Francois Bethoux, MD, Chair of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and principal investigator of the study. “Just like with muscles, with the nervous system you ‘use it or lose it.’ The goal is that the patient will find it easier to walk even when they're not using the device.”
Here’s how the exoskeleton works: A trained physical therapist straps the bulky yet adjustable device onto the patient’s body. An adjustable metal brace supports the legs, feet and torso. Guided by the physical therapist, the exoskeleton is programmed to manipulate the patient’s legs and waist as they stand up, walk on a level surface and sit down. Battery-powered motors drive the knee and hip joints, with the patient gaining support for balance and body positioning through use of a cane, walker or crutches.
“I feel like I have really made progress,” says Kathy, who recently completed the study’s 24, hour-long training sessions spread over an eight-week period. “My posture looks better and my walking has improved. Hopefully, this will get me stronger. It's encouraging.”
One of Kathy’s physical therapists, Matthew Sutliff, can attest to her improvement.
“It seems to be really making a difference in Kathy’s gait training,” he explains. “She has a lot of weakness in her right leg, but her left leg is a bit stronger. So we programmed the device to give her a fair amount of support for her right leg to teach the proper step pattern. As we continued, we slowly reduced assistance for the right leg, requiring her muscles to perform more of the work.”
As Matthew adds, the exoskeleton is not intended to do the work for the patient, but to stimulate “nerve memory” so the muscles will ultimately take over. “The brain is constantly adapting to what we do. By continually repeating something in a certain format, the hope is to “rewire neural pathways in the brain” to walk better, more naturally and safely.”
Findings from the study, which is nearing completion, are expected to be published in 2020.
“Encouraging findings would support the design of a larger clinical trial of this device for gait training in people with MS,” adds Dr. Bethoux.