A look at how FDA-approved robotic leg braces work

AP News
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Posted: Nov 21, 2014 3:45 PM

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Marine Capt. Derek Herrera, who was paralyzed by a sniper's bullet two years ago in southern Afghanistan, is walking again thanks to a set of robotic leg braces known as the ReWalk system. Herrera is the first in the United States to own the device that was recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Several competing products are being used and tested at U.S. rehabilitation hospitals.

The following is a look at how the ReWalk system works:

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THE DEVICE

The ReWalk system is a robotic exoskeleton approved by the FDA for personal use. The person wearing it can command it to stand up, sit down or walk by using a wireless remote control worn on the wrist. Fitted metal braces support the legs and part of the upper body. Motors help move the hips, knees and ankles. The system is built to closely resemble a person's natural gait and walk. A backpack carries a computer and rechargeable battery, and crutches are used for stability. The system weighs 46 pounds, but the company says the user only feels the roughly 5-pound backpack.

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WHO COULD BE HELPED BY IT?

About 200,000 people in the United States have a spinal cord injury, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ReWalk is for those with spinal cord injuries who can still stand with support such as a standing frame. Users must also be able to use crutches or a walker. It is not recommended for people with a history of severe neurological injuries other than spinal cord injury or who have an unstable spine, among other things. The robotic leg braces also are not intended for sports or climbing stairs. The FDA requires an assistant be nearby.

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WHO OWNS IT?

The personal ReWalk system became available for people to buy outside the United States two years ago. It is now on the U.S. market. Worldwide, more than 400 people either own the device or use one in a rehabilitation facility. The personal system is priced at $69,500.

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WHO INVENTED IT?

Israeli scientist Amit Goffer invented the ReWalk system after an ATV accident in 1997 left him paralyzed. ReWalk Robotics Ltd. is one of several companies making devices that use the technology — nicknamed "electronic legs" or "powered exoskeletons." Competing products are also being used and tested in U.S. rehabilitation hospitals. None of the devices so far are fast enough to entirely replace wheelchairs.