Physical therapy is about to experience a sea change. The development of advanced physical therapy technology is coinciding with an increase in the demand for care. Even before the pandemic, the United States Bone and Joint Initiative published research showing that musculoskeletal diseases impacted more than half of the adults in the United States. Remote working conditions, extended ICU stays, and Long Covid are increasing that number dramatically. At the same time, we’re seeing the sudden ubiquity of telehealth and health tracking apps in every smartphone, creating the perfect conditions for widespread technological change in the field of physical therapy.
Here, we’ll look at some of the major developments transforming the field, so PTs can prepare for the future.
Some of the emerging PT tech employs next-generation hardware and robotics. Some involve revolutionary AI that works on any device. Some will require a big upfront investment, others an affordable but consistent monthly subscription. Many will require adjusting your practice or learning a new skill set. None will replace the intelligence and emotional care of a dedicated therapist, but from AI and exoskeleton suits to VR and video games, advanced technology is already improving patient outcomes, reducing physical therapist burnout, and making clinics more efficient.
Wearable tech is helping paralyzed people walk and keeping PTs in the loop
From robotic exo suits to electronic sensor skins, wearable technology is helping PTs provide huge improvements in their patients’ mobility, independence, and quality of life.
Exo suits are battery-powered robotics worn over clothing, originally developed for military applications to help soldiers carry heavier loads. Subsequently introduced for training in a therapeutic setting, these have now received FDA approval for home use. The cost of these powerful robotics will generally put personal ownership out of reach for most patients, but the benefits of using these with a therapist as part of a comprehensive treatment plan are making some clinics consider the investment. The support and mobility provided by an exo suit can improve circulation and oxygen intake, reduce pain, and lead to better bowel and bladder function and joint maintenance. And for many patients, the psychological impact of being able to stand and look their loved ones in the eyes again is immeasurable.
Electronic sensor skins might be less dramatic, but for patients who benefit from them, they’re no less revolutionary. This wearable tech looks like fabric, but it’s laced with hundreds of intelligent sensors able to read, analyze, and map body behavior. This helps bridge the communications gap between PTs and patients and can help improve the therapeutic relationship and keep patients dedicated to the work of their recovery.
- ReWalk allows people with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk using motors at the hip and knee, along with subtle gravity sensors that allow the user to “drive” the system with minor changes in their weight distribution.
- In the United States, this is the first exoskeleton to get FDA approval for personal and rehabilitation use.
- Ekso is a gait-training exoskeleton designed for medically supervised use.
- EksoHealth originally focused on helping people with spinal cord injuries who were told they would never walk again take independent steps.
- EksoNR was the first exoskeleton to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical use in the treatment of strokes, brain injuries, and spinal cord injuries.
- BioSleeve is an ultra-lightweight sleeve with a network of interconnected sensors that capture motion and biometrics in real time.
- BioSleeve connects the integrated sensors to a dashboard via Bluetooth to display a virtual avatar, allowing physical therapists to run through exercises and track data in a clinic or remotely.
Rehab robots are making physical therapy more efficient
Rehab robots are automatically operated machines — from roboticized arms to balance boards and tilt tables — designed to improve movement for people with impaired physical functioning. At their best, they are extensions of the therapist: they allow PTs to help more patients with their exercises than they could before and empower them to offer more data-driven coaching. Rehab robots allow patients to learn an exercise — for example, squeezing a hand or moving individual fingers or toes against a sensor — from a machine that is calibrated to make minute adjustments. A study has shown that patients do more repetitions with the rehab robot, and they enjoy the independence of being able to practice the exercise on their own. And PTs get useful, fine-grained data from each patient’s session with the robot, allowing the PT to use their time and expertise more effectively.
PT clinics that want to use this technology work directly with manufacturers that provide software and training as well as the robots.
Tyromotion is a major manufacturer of technology-based therapeutic devices, including:
- The Pablo Upper Extremity system for hand, arm, shoulder, and trunk rehabilitation and the Lower Extremity system for gait analysis and training. These are small, lightweight, location-independent, wireless, interactive, and sensor-based robotics focused on rehab for daily living.
- The TYMO Balance Board that’s equipped with measurement systems to assess and train postural control and provide deep data for both patient and therapist.
Hocoma is a provider of robotics and sensor-based technologies for rehabilitation, including:
- The Erigo table takes the traditional mechanics of tilt-table training for the early stages of rehab for acute patients and improves their safety and outcomes.
- The Armeo arm and hand rehabilitation devices offer robotic support and assistance as needed in patient-initiated gestures, with augmented reality games and success tracking dashboards to improve a patient’s motivation and success.