The grueling therapy required to recover from a stroke has never been considered fun and games, but a Tempe company has decided maybe it should be.
Kinetic Muscle has paired video games and a robotic arm to help patients regain their physical abilities in a way that’s more engaging than traditional therapy.
The idea came when the young company developed a prototype that had patients move a light up and down on a screen as part of their therapy to regain movement, said chief operating officer Ed Koeneman.
The patients complained the number of repetitions needed was mind-numbing.
“We said we can do something about that. We looked at video game technology and came up with more engaging games,” Koeneman said. “When you give somebody points and let them track their scores, all of a sudden they’re willing to do thousands of repetitions.”
Since the company’s founding 10 years ago, Kinetic Muscle has placed its devices in 150 clinics across the nation. It’s about to release a foot device, an online-enabled version for remote therapy, two additional games and longer-term plans include devices for the hip, shoulder, elbow, knees and individual fingers.
Koeneman founded the company with his father, Jim, a bioengineer who was looking for a project to take on after retiring. A key component of the device is an air muscle, a pneumatic device that mimics muscle tissue.
The device helps patients move their arm at first if needed. The difficulty of each game can be adjusted as a patient improves, and the computer stores each patient’s history so therapists can track progress. The games challenge patients to move the controller on a “Pong”-like game, or to raise and lower a hot air balloon away from ships, planes and birds that approach it.
Dale Puhle has used the device on his immobile hand since January and has regained movement he lost two decades ago, his wife Linda Puhle said.
Puhle suffered a traumatic head injury in the U.S. Marine Corps. 25 years ago, leaving one arm motionless. His fist was clenched so tight that his nails dug into his skin.
He was hesitant to even bother with the device, said Jim Davis, his therapist at Rehab Arizona.
“He told me, ‘I haven’t opened this hand for over 21 years. My arm is dead,’ ” Davis recalled Puhle saying.
Today, the 44-year-old Gilbert man can use his hand to play the game. More importantly, he’s gaining control and finally can use a remote control or drink from a cup without spilling water everywhere.
The progress was thrilling after years of searching for new therapies for a former bodybuilder who had reached a plateau in his recovery, Linda Puhle said.
“He felt he was a burden on me,” Linda Puhle said. “This actually takes all this away because he can feel that he himself is accomplishing something.”
Kinetic Muscle is hoping to tap into the $70 billion annual market for stroke therapy in the U.S. That’s expected to grow given the aging of the baby boomers because people 65 and over are at a higher risk of stroke. According to the American Stroke Association, more than 660,000 people in the U.S. survive a stroke every year, and 7 million are living with stroke-caused disabilities.
Kinetic Muscle’s devices have undergone several clinical trials and Koeneman said he’d like to expand treatment so it can be done for longer sessions at patient’s homes. The arm and video monitor are easy enough that even tech-averse patients could use them while a therapist monitors progress remotely, he said. He figures patients are likely stick with the therapy even at home because it can be adjusted to a patient’s ability easily — and because it’s engaging.
“It’s a long process but the games make it a little bit less arduous,” Koeneman said. “There’s a fine line between challenging a patient and frustrating a patient. You never want to frustrate somebody because that’s when they give up and quit.”
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