Powered robotic exoskeletons in post-stroke rehabilitation of gait

Powered robotic exoskeletons are a potential intervention for gait rehabilitation in stroke to enable repetitive walking practice to maximize neural recovery. As this is a relatively new technology for stroke, a scoping review can help guide current research and propose recommendations for advancing the research development.

The aim of this scoping review was to map the current literature surrounding the use of robotic exoskeletons for gait rehabilitation in adults post-stroke. Five databases (Pubmed, OVID MEDLINE, CINAHL, Embase, Cochrane Central Register of Clinical Trials) were searched for articles from inception to October 2015. Reference lists of included articles were reviewed to identify additional studies. Articles were included if they utilized a robotic exoskeleton as a gait training intervention for adult stroke survivors and reported walking outcome measures. Of 441 records identified, 11 studies, all published within the last five years, involving 216 participants met the inclusion criteria.

The study designs ranged from pre-post clinical studies (n = 7) to controlled trials (n = 4); five of the studies utilized a robotic exoskeleton device unilaterally, while six used a bilateral design. Participants ranged from sub-acute (<7 weeks) to chronic (>6 months) stroke. Training periods ranged from single-session to 8-week interventions. Main walking outcome measures were gait speed, Timed Up and Go, 6-min Walk Test, and the Functional Ambulation Category.

Meaningful improvement with exoskeleton-based gait training was more apparent in sub-acute stroke compared to chronic stroke. Two of the four controlled trials showed no greater improvement in any walking outcomes compared to a control group in chronic stroke.

In conclusion, clinical trials demonstrate that powered robotic exoskeletons can be used safely as a gait training intervention for stroke.

Preliminary findings suggest that exoskeletal gait training is equivalent to traditional therapy for chronic stroke patients, while sub-acute patients may experience added benefit from exoskeletal gait training. Efforts should be invested in designing rigorous, appropriately powered controlled trials before powered exoskeletons can be translated into a clinical tool for gait rehabilitation post-stroke.

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