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Are wearable robots the future of physical therapy?

Technology in the health care sector is often much more advanced than that on the consumer market. In fact, it was as far back as 2002 that a team of surgeons in New York used a pair of robotic appendages and an internet connection to operate on a patient in Strasbourg, some 8,700 miles away, according to a study found in the National Library of Medicine. As the health care industry uses more and more advanced technology, wearable tech might just be the next step. This is especially likely in the realm of physical therapy.

Basic wearables

Many people already use basic forms of wearable technology every day. The most common piece of wearable tech is probably the activity tracker – a watch-like device that records steps taken, calories burned and sometimes even sleeping patterns.

Individuals can look at this information on a connected smartphone app and adjust their routines accordingly. Success with these methods depends greatly on each individual’s willingness to make using the device a habit.

Although consumer-level wearables are still fairly basic in function, their prevalence has gotten people used to wearing their devices rather than keeping them in a pocket or bag. There have been at-home solutions for glucometers and blood pressure monitors for years, and they’re only becoming more compact and easier to use. In a therapy setting, these devices can be extremely helpful. And the devices on the horizon are even more promising.

Wearable robots

The next step in wearable technology goes beyond devices that simply record data and track activity levels. Future projects will aim to actually assist people in activities such as walking. Motherboard reported that researchers at Harvard University are designing a wearable robot that can actually assist in the walking process.

Conor Walsh, an associate professor at the university, told the source, “The aim is to develop wearable robots that can augment the performance of healthy individuals by reducing their energy expenditure when walking with heavy loads.”

Beyond that, the device may be able to help those with physical disabilities as they work to regain strength in their legs. Basically, the suit uses two motors attached at the hip to send signals to thigh and calf pieces which give the wearer an extra bit of energy. The goal is to reduce fatigue, especially when carrying a large pack. In the near future, augmented versions of this device might even be able to replace walkers and wheelchairs for those with disabilities.

Wearable Technologies magazine reported on a number of other potential wearable therapy devices such a gloves that aid finger flexion and exoskeletons to aid those with nerve damage. Some devices are further off than others, but it’s exciting to see what’s around the corner. It’s very likely that you’ll see more wearable technology over the course of your career.