Robotics Could Help Rehabilitate Injured Limbs

by Suzanne Soto

Prof. Hussein Abdullah believes robotics could one day perform some of the repetitive treatments involved in physical rehabilitation. Photo by Dean Palmer/The Scenario

Strokes, traffic accidents, sports mishaps - they can all cause injuries requiring physical therapy and rehabilitation. One of the better ways of treating these injuries, particularly when limbs are involved, is through physical therapy requiring patients to repeat a motion or task.

Prof. Hussein Abdullah, Engineering, an expert in robotics and mechatronics, says that although intensive physical treatment does strengthen impaired limbs, some of these programs can take a long time to bring about improvement. There is also no accurate way of determining if a particular therapy or motion is the most effective course of action.

"The current conventional physical and occupational therapy in treatment centres is subjective, labour-intensive and costly, particularly for the health-care system," says Abdullah. "This is where I believe robotics could make a significant contribution. We are trying to develop robotics that someday may be able to perform some of these repetitive treatments, reduce the need for human attendants and bring down costs."

Abdullah has just received $30,000 over two years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for a research project titled "An Intelligent Rehabilitation Robotic System for Limb Injury Recovery."

With the funding, he hopes to begin building a mechanical system that can be used by people with weakened limbs to improve limbic activity. The system would help these patients achieve continual motion. Through an "intelligent" built-in monitoring technique, the system would also keep track of the patient's muscular and other reactions to the treatment program.

"This feedback would then be a great tool for the doctor or physical therapist and the patient in determining, on a week-by-week basis, if the treatment is working or if alterations are needed," Abdullah says.

He stresses that his work on the robotics system is only beginning. As part of developing these robots, he needs to do a considerable amount of research, particularly in the area of safety.

"When people use robotics on a factory floor, the robot working area is usually totally secured so none of the operators interfere with the robot's space. In this case, it's different because the robot will be in direct touch with the actual user. So we need to ensure the system is safe, flexible and able to ease interaction between man and machine."

Abdullah adds that the system would not supplant physical therapists or completely take over their work. "It will just be a very useful aid for the therapist in performing the repetitive element of the training program and keeping track of patient progress."