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The future of physical therapy being built at UW-Milwaukee

Posted at 6:13 PM, Nov 09, 2020

MILWAUKEE — The future of physical therapy is being developed right here in Milwaukee. A group of engineers at UW-Milwaukee are at the forefront of re-imagining doctor-patient relationships and how people rehab their injuries.

Dr. Habib Rahman and his team of Ph.D. students have been working on an autonomous exoskeleton robotic arm that allows the elderly, stroke victims, and those with traumatic injuries to do physical therapy without the physical therapist... in the most basic terms.

"The result is to make it more portable so people can have it at their home rather than using it at the hospital," Dr. Rahman, an associate professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering at UWM said.

This is how the exoskeleton works. After strapping into the Smart Robotic Exoskeleton (SREx), you select the arm exercise that you want to work on. The robotic arm will then begin to assist you with the movement. Either it will do the majority of the work for you or it will merely assist you or just provide simple resistance. It's three different types of rehabilitation that are necessary for the therapeutic process. The arm can even sense how you are feeling and adjust the amount of work it is outputting.

"When you wire this device this will augment upper limb function, so the people with limited strength that can help them to compensate the gravity to grab the objects," Rahman said.

Having this at home serves multiple purposes. For those who are dependent on getting rides to the doctor's office, this eliminates that need because you do this at home. It also infinitely increases the amount you can exercise your arm. No longer are you beholden to the maximum number of physical therapy sessions as allotted by your insurance policy.

"That will help the patients to regain the lost upper limb function faster," Rahman said.

It's no secret that this kind of rehab can be frustrating since results are hard to determine and notice. While using the SREx, you get real-time results of how you are doing. It shows movements, rotations, and distances, your upper limbs traveled.

In a medical profession that heavily relies on anecdotal evidence from the patient to determine progress, this gives quantitative data to show improvements.

"We just want to help people. That’s our goal," Mohammad Rasedul Islam, a Ph.D. student said.

While this does help eliminate some trips to the physical therapist, Rahman's team said it doesn't replace a specialist.

"We see this exoskeleton robot not as a replacement of physical therapies or occupational therapies but as a tool they can use. It's more of an intelligent robotic assistant that can serve more people in the shortest time," Tanvir Ahmed, a Ph.D engineering student, said.

This just helps with the exercises and not the diagnosis or how to move forward.

There is still some tinkering that's needed before this commercially available. They also want to change some of the materials used. For those reasons and a few more, they hope to have the SREx commercially available in four years.

This isn't all Rahman is working on either. He recently got a nearly $1.5 million grant to work on a robotic arm that would attach to a wheelchair. It would be capable of grabbing objects, opening doors, and giving back a level of independence to people who are wheelchair-bound.

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