Technological innovation in healthcare rehabilitation could hold the key to transforming the lives of thousands of stroke survivors by helping them to get back on their feet. By using wearable 'haptic bracelet' devices, we're aiming to cultivate an innovative method to improve the walking of people after stroke.
There are so many opportunities out there to use technological products and wearables to enhance living - and this is never more true than when looking at how best to help with rehabilitation after illness or injury.
As a physiotherapist with a specific interest in stroke rehabilitation, I'm passionate about finding and adapting technology to help people improve their ability, and ultimately their quality of life.
To give you some background, there are 1.2 million stroke survivors in the UK and half are likely to have a disability (Stroke Association, 2016) so technological solutions could transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
However, what sometimes seems like a great idea on paper just doesn't pan out in real-life practice. Simple things like the ability to fasten a smart watch or to press buttons on a mobile phone app are often impossible and frustrating for people after stroke, meaning that the potential benefits of using a variety of technology is lost.
That's why I am so excited about our new project working alongside computer engineers and stroke survivors to collaboratively develop a wearable piece of technology to help with the evenness, or symmetry of walking, after stroke.
Walking asymmetrically occurs when more time is spent on one leg than the other and happens after stroke as damage to the brain leads to reduced muscle activity on one side of the body. Difficulties with walking are common after stroke and have a significant impact on stroke survivors' recovery; problems with walking reduces an individual's confidence to walk around in the community, increases their risk of falling and makes many people feel self-conscious about walking in public. Consequently, many people simply avoid walking outside and going out, which ultimately results in the loss of their social networks and triggers poorer physical and mental health.
The haptic bracelets that I am developing with computer engineers from the Open University and colleagues from nursing, science and physiotherapy here at Manchester Met could help with this by sensing asymmetry and providing a vibratory rhythmical cue - similar to a mobile phone - which we think could improve the evenness of walking.
The aim is to develop something that is wearable, probably on the leg, and that is discreet with easy controls for stroke survivors to use outside of their usual physio and occupational therapy sessions. It is vital to develop the haptic bracelet in conjunction with stroke survivors and therapists, rather than just coming up with the technology and giving it to people to use. We are now running focus groups with stroke survivors to find out how they want it to look, feel and work and their input will directly shape the design.
We are also planning similar sessions with therapists to look at how they might want it to use to complement their treatment. The project is very much in its infancy but has just been awarded innovation funding from the Greater Manchester Academic Health Science Network to develop it further.
As there is evidence that suggests the bracelets could improve walking in a range of conditions, not just stroke, the device has big potential and we are hopeful that by the end of the year we will have a working prototype of a haptic device which we can go on to test in larger scale trials. But, perhaps more importantly, we will have a device that by collaboratively harnessing technological know-how and the input of stroke survivors, will work for, and can be used by, people after stroke to deliver potentially meaningful benefits in everyday life.
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