Spinal Cord Injury: Life-Changing Technology
Powered exoskeletons, brain implants and advanced robotics: these breakthroughs in spinal cord injury technology are widely talked about and becoming well known. TV shows, documentaries and blogs about technological solutions for disabilities are easy to find. For the most part, robotic limbs and mind-controlled hands are still a long way from becoming mainstream, user-friendly technologies.
Still, these visionary tech companies have spurred on smaller yet equally meaningful missions: to use current technology to tackle the everyday issues faced by people with spinal cord injuries.
These are the emerging and available technologies that are changing life with SCI for people around the world.
Exoskeleton technology was once a fringe military research and development project. Now, it’s a world famous, practical solution to paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and strokes. With the aid of crutches, patients with paraplegia (and in some cases tetraplegia) can stand up, sit down and walk. Simple hand controls and balance techniques are used to activate the motors, which support leg motion and provide an effective gait.
Although becoming more mainstream, exoskeleton technology is still expensive - even the cheapest exoskeleton available to buy costs $40,000 (£28,500). Prices are coming down and the technology is becoming more accessible - but at any price, these machines add an unbelievable amount of value to people's’ lives.
As the Aspire Law team experienced first hand, powered exoskeletons for SCI don’t just provide mobility; being able to stand and talk to people at eye level has a profound impact on mood. Standing and moving more reduces spasticity and even aids bowel care.
Powered exoskeletons improve quality of life in unexpected ways. It’s exciting to see this technology develop - but what’s available right now is pretty incredible, and Aspire Law is seeing more cases where exoskeletons are a valid, appropriate aid to rehabilitation and recovery.
Using Smartphones, Tablets and Computers
The SCI Health Storylines app has been helping patients with rehabilitation and recovery for a few years now, acting as a digital data diary for patients, physicians and caregivers. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, as a world of apps is being developed to tackle a full spectrum of issues - from the simplest everyday nuisances to complex problems.
Google Maps, the app synonymous with the downfall of sat nav, is now crowdsourcing accessibility data to include in general mapping, in an effort to speed up the process of logging a worldwide accessibility map. This simple information will make going out so much easier and make a positive impact to the lives of people with reduced mobility.
Google’s commitment to providing this information shows that big tech companies are serious about accessibility and inclusivity. Apple’s iPhone has deep accessibility options for people with limited mobility, like touch range and time controls, voice control and compatibility with specialist apps. All smartphones will feature some kind of customisable accessibility settings.
Apps like Wheelmap (iOS and Android) are currently filling in the gaps, with accessibility mapping, while the more specialist Wheelmate (iOS and Android) is focused on locating disabled toilets and parking spaces.
Mobile computing offers social connection, information on tap and entertainment to everyone - and for disabled people, having that access is a huge boost.
Enhanced Humans: Implants and Robotics
Technology that gives people enhanced abilities is already here. Augmented reality is current tech, albeit not very widely adopted. It’s still a gimmick - but it’s already feeding computers with data: depth perception, object recognition and other basic skills.
These are fundamental to developing artificial intelligence and advanced robotics - which could one day provide seamless human integration with robotic limbs that function in the same way as human limbs. This can be cross-developed into powered, full-body exoskeletons that use the brain to directly control movement. New research shows that the spinal cord can be bypassed, taking electrical signals from the brain and sending them directly to muscles, allowing movement.
Sensory feedback could one day be built into this, reversing the flow of information from the limbs to the brain.
This technology is fringe, experimental and years away from becoming release worthy - but with enough funding and the right minds behind these projects, we could have implants that bypass spinal cord injury and restore limb function and sensation.
It’s important that society engages with and supports the researchers, scientists and engineers trying their best to make life better for millions of people. If the world continues to support these causes, this type of technology could be fully-fledged within the next two decades.
Here for You after Spinal Cord Injury
Aspire Law is a specialist law firm, just for people with SCI. We’re dedicated to providing information and support for everyone affected by spinal cord injury - from advice on bowel care to legal help when you need it.
For information and spinal cord injury legal advice, get in touch: give us a call on 0800 030 20 40.