Medical exoskeletons: the union of biology, medicine and technology in the service of health

Humans have always considered ourselves to be the most developed species on the planet. However, nature has not made any species perfect, not even ours. Therefore, one of the challenges of medicine today is to find organs and functionalities in the animal world that we can apply to improve our quality of life. This is the case with exoskeletons.  

The exoskeleton is the continuous external skeleton that covers, protects and supports the body of an animal, fungus or protist. From the shells of turtles to the horny scales of crocodiles, all exoskeletons serve as protection for animals. And human beings have unwittingly copied these models from times long before modern medicine. As early as the Middle Ages, shields were used as protection in combat.  

However, in recent years, medicine has created exoskeleton models that escape from the routine to enter the world of science fiction. With the help of technology, many companies have set out to research and create exoskeletons that allow humans to perform functions that are impossible for them to do on their own. Whether due to a lack of strength, a temporary injury or a permanent disability.  

Many patients will be able to walk again 

One of the main groups that would benefit from this product is people with spinal cord injuries. Each year, between 250,000 and 500,000 people worldwide suffer a spinal cord injury. Therefore, different research groups are working to create an exoskeleton that will allow them to walk again. However, the models currently on the market are not very accessible, costing between €80,000 and 100,000

The ABLE group is working on an exoskeleton that will reduce this price considerably, bringing it down to around 10,000. The product will use only the mechanisms and sensors essential to recover the walking function of patients with spinal cord injury. It will consist of three modules to be placed on the knee (like an artificial muscle), on the tibia (as a sensor to detect the user’s intention) and, finally, a backpack container to carry the electronics and the battery.  

Currently, the most commonly used exoskeletons are those that complement the lower extremities. Researchers are currently working on an exoskeleton model that would reduce the recovery process from severe knee injuries from 75 to 25 days. This system will be able to detect the person’s effort, the position in which they are in and the ground they are treading in order to modify their rigidity and provide stability to the user. It can be placed in the same hospital two days after the surgery (avoiding the fifteen days of rest that are normally required) to start mobilising, facilitating drainage and healing. It is hoped that companies such as Sanitas will acquire these robots for use in their hospitals.  

Prevention is better than cure 

The saying goes that “better safe than sorry”. And that is why exoskeletons are not only intended for hospital use. Industrial companies are also developing models that help the worker when loading or handling heavy objects, thus reducing occupational risks. Taking into account, in 2019 there were more than a million accidents at work in Spain alone.  

These are some of the projects in a booming market. According to a Markets and Markets report, exoskeletons are expected to generate a €510 million industry by 2022. One of the main reasons for this growth is the collaboration between companies and research organizations for the development of exoskeletons. This is an ESG investment that will improve the living conditions of many patients in the future.  

Another reason why the medical exoskeleton sector is growing is the increase in the number of people with physical disabilities. Medical coverage for exoskeletons is also increasing. Undoubtedly, data indicate that in the future research will continue to be carried out to develop increasingly lighter, more functional and efficient exoskeletons. Biology, medicine and technology are bound to be understood by a common good: patients.  

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