Helping MS Sufferers Walk Easier
First Published: Enews - September 2011
Flinders University researchers are trialling a new device which they hope will help people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) move more easily.
MS affects the 'insulation' around the nerves that carry signals from the brain to the muscles.
Two major research projects being undertaken in the SA Movement Analysis Centre's Gait Laboratory - based at the Repatriation General Hospital and headed by Flinders' researchers - are looking at improving the mobility problems which develop as the disease progresses.
The first study is looking at whether a three-part electrical stimulation device strapped over the dorsiflexor muscle in the leg will help MS sufferers to walk, thus reducing walking-related fatigue.
'A foot switch is placed in the heel of the shoe, a controller is kept on a belt clip or in the pocket, and a stimulator is strapped to the leg under the knee with electrodes over the dorsiflexor muscle,' explained lead researcher and Flinders lecturer Chris Barr.
'When the patient is walking the foot switch tells the controller when the foot is off the ground and the controller turns on the stimulator, causing the dorsiflexor to contract lifting the foot upwards.
'When the foot contacts the ground again the switch in the show communicates with the controller and it turns the stimulator off so the dosiflexor relaxes lowering the foot down. This is very similar to the normal walking pattern.'
Chris said the research will determine if the device helps people with MS walk with a better pattern and with less effort, if their walking improves with prolonged use of the machine and if any 'training effort' is maintained when the person stops using the device.
'Because the device is stimulating muscles that aren't always in use, it's possible that there may be a training effect - the muscles might get stronger because they're getting used more,' Chris said.
The second study is investigating the effect of prolonged walking on balance, mobility and falls risk in people with MS.
'Fatigue is one of the greatest limitations to walking ability for people with MS, with lower limb weakness worsening with increased walking distances,' lead researcher and neurological physiotherapist James McLoughlin, a senior lecturer at Flinders University, said.
'What we're investigating is whether the correct combination of exercises and/or simple orthotics helps reduce the effects of fatigue on mobility while also reducing the risk of falls.
'By offering tailored programs in physiotherapy, orthosis prescription and medications we hope to significantly change the lives of people with MS.'