How Soft Robotics Can Aid Stroke Patients in Re-Learning Skills

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Middle aged black man doing walking physical therapy helped

Stroke survivors often experience reduced limb functionality, impacting their ability to carry out daily tasks. Whether the client experiences paresis, loss of sensation, pain, or spasticity, these difficulties can hinder their ability to take care of themselves and resume their normal lives. This not only takes a toll on their physical and emotional well-being but also creates additional obstacles to their recovery journey. Some patients have shared their struggles of not being able to dine out, close doors, or even feeling a sense of sadness for not being able to engage in activities they once enjoyed.

Speech, occupational and physical therapists play a crucial role in helping stroke survivors recover their motor skills, and now they have an extraordinary tool at their disposal: soft robotics. Soft robotics, an innovative field within robotics, has demonstrated immense potential in aiding stroke patients with their rehabilitation process and enhancing their daily functions.

What is “Soft Robotics”?

Soft robotics refers to the development of robotic tools that use compliant materials, aiming to replicate the characteristics of natural soft tissues, both in terms of texture and movement.

Unlike traditional exoskeletons used in rehabilitation, which are often rigid and cumbersome, soft pneumatic actuators have emerged as a groundbreaking innovation in the field of robotics. These actuators provide lightweight, flexible, and practical support for patients. By incorporating advanced sensor technologies, these soft exoskeletons can adapt and compensate for significant changes in shape, delivering a more comfortable and effective rehabilitation experience. Ultimately, soft robotic exoskeletons hold immense potential in enhancing the capabilities of patients recovering from neurotrauma, such as stroke.

Photo taken on 8/9/2023 from "Soft Robotic Hand for Stroke Rehabilitation" by Alishba Imran. Published Apr 25, 2021.  https://alishbaimran.medium.com/soft-robotic-hand-for-stroke-rehabilitation-2dc7fbe69009

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Enhancing Dexterity through Soft Robotics:

Relearning specific movements or skills is an essential part of stroke rehabilitation. Soft robotic exoskeletons, with their flexible materials and sensors, can provide gentle support and assistance to stroke patients in relearning and regaining motor abilities. By monitoring and responding to the patient’s movements in real time, these exoskeletons offer valuable feedback and adjustments, facilitating the reacquisition of correct movement techniques. This adaptability makes soft robotic exoskeletons particularly beneficial for tasks that require precise finger movements, such as playing musical instruments.

But that’s not all – soft robotics can revolutionize traditional rehabilitation tools like canes, walkers, and braces. By replacing rigid options with these flexible alternatives, clients can train their bodies to adapt to motions sooner and with less strain. Soft robotic tools don’t replace therapy; instead, they enhance therapeutic techniques and minimize disruptions to clients’ lives. Moreover, the natural movements facilitated by these tools can be a game-changer for recovery, as clients often encounter challenges and discomfort when attempting to use their skills.

What sets soft robotics apart is their incredible adaptability, making them ideal for guiding clients through their recovery journey. Starting with a limb they’re unable to use, individuals can gradually improve and train finer motions with the highly specialized support provided by soft robotic exoskeletons. This combination of adaptability and support holds immense potential for stroke survivors.

Studies are showing promising results, whether it’s improving gait for clients learning to walk again or enhancing fine motor skills like writing, playing musical instruments, or typing. However, there are some limitations. While the studies are still recent, it’s worth noting that stroke survivors with high spasticity did not experience significant improvement when using soft robotics to assist therapy.

Taken on 8/9/2023 from Boston University College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College: https://www.bu.edu/sargent/soft-robotic-exosuit-makes-stroke-survivors-walk-faster-and-farther/
Outdoors Exosuit tests. Boston University College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College

Barriers and Concerns of Soft Robotics for Recovery

The use of soft robotics for stroke rehabilitation does come with certain challenges and barriers that need to be addressed:

  1. Safety Concerns: Safety is a critical factor when implementing soft robotics in stroke rehabilitation. Ensuring that the devices are safe for patient use, especially considering the vulnerability of stroke patients, is essential. Robust safety mechanisms and extensive testing are necessary to minimize the risk of injury during therapy sessions.
  2. Customization and Fit: Each stroke patient’s condition and needs are unique, and therefore, soft robotics devices need to be customizable to accommodate different limb sizes, shapes, and specific functional limitations. The one-size-fits-all approach might not be ideal for stroke rehabilitation, as it may limit the effectiveness of the therapy.
  3. Ease of Use: Soft robotics devices must be user-friendly to facilitate easy adoption by both the patients and the therapists involved in their rehabilitation. Devices that are complex or difficult to operate may hinder patient compliance and the overall effectiveness of the therapy.
  4. Cost: Soft robotics technology can be costly, which may limit its widespread adoption in stroke rehabilitation. The development and manufacturing costs of these devices need to be balanced with affordability to ensure accessibility to a larger number of patients and providers.
  5. Acceptance and Perception: The appearance and aesthetics of soft robotics devices can impact patient acceptance and motivation during the rehabilitation process. Clients may be less inclined to use devices that they perceive as bulky or unattractive. Therefore, designing aesthetically pleasing and less conspicuous devices can help overcome this barrier.
  6. Harder to Control: Paradoxically, devices that offer movement freedom and range of movement are much harder to control. Much like amputees sometimes shun advanced prosthetics for simpler hooks or other body-powered prostheses, there’s a steep learning curve that can be discouraging for clients.

Soft robotics offers a promising avenue for stroke rehabilitation, allowing patients to relearn skills and regain functionality in a more comfortable and adaptable manner. The integration of flexible sensor technologies in soft exoskeletons provides real-time feedback, facilitating the reacquisition of correct movement techniques. With further advancements, soft robotics could become another tool in a physical, occupational, or speech therapist’s kit – if we can break down the barriers.

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