In an historic move, the VA has agreed to pay for robotic legs for eligible paralyzed veterans with spinal cord injuries. The powered exoskeleton, called the ReWalk, was approved for in-home use by the FDA in 2014, but the $77,000 price tag meant few insurers would cover it.
The device consists of leg braces with motion sensors and motorized joints that can respond to changes in upper body movement and shifts in balance. There is also a computerized control system and a tilt sensor. Worn outside the clothing, there is a support belt around the waist to keep the suit in place as well as a backpack for the computer and rechargeable battery. Crutches must be used for stability, and FDA regulations require that an assistant be nearby.
The ReWalk not only improves quality of life, but also provides additional health benefits. VA pilot studies show that paraplegics who used the device as little as four hours a week for three to five months saw improved bladder and bowel function, improved sleep, less fatigue, and decreased back pain. Research into the long-term effects and benefits of this device are ongoing.
The ReWalk is not for everyone, however. It does not work for quadriplegics due to the need to use the arms and upper body with the device. There are also very specific weight and height requirements.
The VA has started training staff at twelve healthcare centers to provide the system, and the program is expected to expand. Already, 45 paralyzed veterans have been evaluated and meet the requirements for the device.
If you would like more information about the program, please go to http://www.va.gov/QUALITYOFCARE/improving/Spinal_Cord_Injury.asp.