New robotic therapy helping children with cerebral palsy walk

It’s a larger than life robot that’s working to improve balance and gait and teach children the right way to walk. The legs are specially designed for children.

It affects 8,000 babies every year — more than 750,000 kids and adults in the United States are living with cerebral palsy.

It’s a neurological condition that affects body movement and coordination. Many kids have to rely on a wheelchair or walker to get around, But now, technology is helping kids feel secure on their own two feet.

A bleed in her brain at birth caused cerebral palsy for Jenna Culleeney.

“She was 16 weeks early. She weighed a pound and a half,” explains Jenna’s mom Nannette.

She’s had surgery to break and re-set her legs, but she still struggles to walk.

“She’d fall over if she wasn’t holding onto things,” says Nannette.

To improve Jenna’s stability, therapists at Shriners’ Hospitals for Children strapped her in, and hoisted her up.

It’s a larger than life robot that’s working to improve Jenna’s balance and gait and teach her the right way to walk.

The legs are specially designed for children. Traditionally, two therapists would have to hold onto the child’s legs on a treadmill, manually placing the feet in position.

“You wouldn’t be able to get consistent movement in the child’s leg, and you also wouldn’t be able to have a therapist do that work as long as a robotic machine can do it for us,” says Sara Klass, director of spinal cord injury service at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Chicago.

The machine allows children to consistently repeat the motion, strengthening muscles and increasing endurance. Smiles and frowns tell the child if she’s walking correctly.

After six months on the machine, Jenna’s feeling more confident on her feet.

“You can tell in the way she’s walking. Her knees bend when she’s supposed to. They straighten out when they’re supposed to,” says a happy Nannette.

“My walking isn’t going to be as good as other children, but I’m doing very good,” says Jenna.

A girl who’s determined to set her own pace on a path to independence. There are six centers across the country using the robot for kids. Therapists say it can also help kids with spinal cord injuries.

Reporter: Maureen McFadden


REPORT: MB #3030

BACKGROUND: Cerebral palsy is a condition that causes physical disability in early development. It is caused by damage to the white matter in the motor centers of the developing brain and abnormalities that disrupt the brain’s abilities. Brain damage is caused by bleeding and a lack of oxygen to the brain. Perception, cognition, communication and musculoskeletal problems may also occur.

Exposure to toxic substances, premature birth, low birth rate, infections during pregnancy and blood type incompatibility are some of the many risk factors for cerebral palsy. There is no cure for cerebral palsy, but treatments used early and regularly can reduce the affects of the disease. Many specialists are examining how brain cells form and make the right connections and are trying to prevent disruption of the normal development of the brain.

SYMPTOMS: Young children with cerebral palsy may not be able to crawl, walk, or sit without support or reach. Development of abnormal muscle tone or uncontrolled movements may occur. Speech problems, mental retardation, seizures, hearing loss and vision problems are also symptoms of cerebral palsy. Experts say if parents see their child develop these symptoms, they should contact their health care provider for testing.

TREATMENTS: Rehabilitation treatment involves physical activity and stretching to accomplish tasks such as walking and sitting unsupported. Occupational therapy helps address and accomplish needs in order to live the most independent life possible. Communication problems can be overcome by speech therapy. Medications such as dopaminergic drugs like Sinernet and Artane, and muscle relaxants can also be prescribed to reduce abnormal movements and help prevent seizures.

THERAPIES: Lokomat therapy uses a robotic device to help a person learn how to walk. The patient is put in a harness over a treadmill and robotic leg harnesses repeat a natural walking motion while strengthening leg muscles. Computers measure the response to the movements and also provide motivational cartoons to give the patients instruction. Before Lokomat, this therapy was done by people manually moving patients’ legs. The more traditional method limited the effectiveness and duration of the therapy, but the Lokomat keeps a constant, more long-term pace.

Results from a study indicated that there was an improvement in motor function and walking speed after using Lokomat therapy. Children over age 4 with neurological conditions that are evaluated by a physician are eligible for Lokomat therapy.


Sara Klaas
Director, Spinal Cord Injury Service
Shriners Hospitals for Children
(773) 385-5448

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