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Device restores mobility, helps foot drop

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  • Device restores mobility, helps foot drop

    Fellow active MSer Michaelene uses a device called a WalkAide to fight foot drop ... and it's "definitely" helped her. She sent along the following article, which appeared in the August 26 edition of the Chicago Tribune. See below or go here for the direct link:,399271.story

    Device restores mobility after nerve damageBy Terri Yablonsky Stat | Special to the Chicago Tribune
    August 26, 2008
    Michaelene Needham, 44, of Northbrook has multiple sclerosis and relied on a cane and then a walker for years. Now the mother of three is finding new mobility and energy for her busy life.

    Needham, like other people with upper motor neuron injuries including stroke, spinal cord injury and cerebral palsy, can now walk with greater ease using the Walk-Aide System. The WalkAide is an orthotic device made by Innovative Neurotronics that helps people with foot drop, a condition that inhibits a person's ability to raise the front part of the foot.

    Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2006, the WalkAide uses advanced sensor technology to analyze the movement of the leg and foot. The system sends electrical signals to the peroneal nerve, which controls movement in the ankle and foot. Gentle electrical impulses activate the muscles to raise the foot at the appropriate time during the step cycle.

    The device, which is the size of a pager and fits just below the knee, includes a control unit, a flexible cuff and two electrodes. It must be prescribed by a doctor and, in Illinois, fitted by a licensed orthotist who has completed the WalkAide training program.

    "This is the biggest breakthrough in orthotics in 25 years," said Michael Oros, president of Scheck & Siress, the Chicago-based orthotic and prosthetic company that fitted Needham for the WalkAide. Patients with foot drop typically have used a plastic brace that fits inside their shoe and holds the foot at a 90-degree angle. "But with the WalkAide, the patient's own musculature pulls the foot up. It's a powerful feedback mechanism for patients. The WalkAide allows the patient to use their own muscles that in many cases have been dormant for 10 to 12 years."

    In addition to improving the patient's gait, the WalkAide increases mobility and independence, increases range of motion, reduces atrophy and improves circulation, said Oros, a board-certified prosthetist and orthotist.

    Needham, who was diagnosed with MS in 1991, started using a cane in 2004 and switched to a walker last September after she fell in her home. "That's when I started deteriorating," she said. "I couldn't walk far. I hung on to the walker and my legs dragged behind me. Because of the dragging, I was fatiguing. I could barely get through the grocery store."

    She was fit for the WalkAide in April after her doctor determined she was a candidate. Those eligible for the device must not wear a pacemaker, nor can they have a history of seizures, have a metal implant in or around the lower extremity or be pregnant. In addition, patients need an intact peroneal nerve for the device to work. People with progressive diseases such as MS may use it indefinitely, Oros said.

    "I keep it on all day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.," said Needham. She uses the walker when walking long distances too. "I'm so excited about being able to do more. I'm building muscles and getting my strength back. My posture is better. ... It's finding all these muscles that didn't work for a while.

    "When I'd go to the grocery store I had to sit in the car and rest before going home, where I'd lie down again. Now I come home and I'm able to go to my next errand."

    Although the youngest person Scheck & Siress has fitted for the device is a teenager, Oros said children with cerebral palsy could benefit from the device. "Their gait is improved, they have better balance and they improve walking speed over time."

    The WalkAide costs around $5,000 for one foot and is currently not covered by insurance, according to Mary Ann Schultz, spokeswoman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, the state's largest insurer. The device gets a thumbs-up from Dr. Dusan Stefoski, professor of neurology and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at Rush University Medical Center. "I am astonished by the WalkAide," he said. "I've been in the field of MS since the late '70s and what I see is quite beautiful from a functional point of view."
    Dave Bexfield