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Rehabilitation robotics is a special branch of robotics which focuses on machines that can be used to help people recover from severe physical trauma. It is just beginning to make serious inroads in the world of physical therapy, but already the results are miraculous in many cases.
A robot is simply a device made to enact a specific task or series of tasks. The complexity of these tasks, as well as the amount of human interaction involved, ranges widely across the spectrum of robots, but most robots require at least some degree of human interaction to accomplish tasks of anything more than medium complexity. Robots are used in an enormous range of applications, from entertainment to industry to home maintenance. The field of rehabilitation robotics is one obvious direction for robotics to take, as machines become more affordable and their ability to autonomously aid human beings increases.
There are three main areas of physical therapy: cardiopulmonary, neurological, and musculoskeletal. Cardiopulmonary therapy helps to treat breathing problems such as asthma and to rehabilitate those who have undergone cardiac trauma. Neurological therapy mostly aims to help restore muscle control or to help foster muscle control in those born with little or none. Musculoskeletal therapy assists in strengthening and restoring functionality in the muscle groups and the skeleton, and in improving coordination. Though rehabilitation robotics has applications in all three areas of physical therapy, most of the work and development is focused on musculoskeletal uses of robotics.
One exciting new tool for physical therapy that has come out of the field of rehabilitation robotics is the robotic exoskeleton. Since the beginning of the 21st century, a number of companies have developed machines that humans can literally lock into in order to overcome some of the limitations of their bodies. While many of the uses of robotic exoskeletons are military in nature, the research has also yielded much fruit for this field. The most promising exoskeleton being used in rehabilitation robotics is the LOPES, which stands for Lower-extremity Powered Exoskeleton. The LOPES is intended to help people regain lost motor control, such as that often seen after a serious stroke.
The benefits of rehabilitation robotics are many. In the current paradigm of physical therapy, many therapists often work with one patient, to support their limbs and help them move at the early stages. A robotic exoskeleton allows rehabilitation to occur with only one therapist, with the robot providing support and tempering the patient's gait. A robotic exoskeleton also allows for a more consistent training regimen, with the robot tracking a patient's progress and shifting the stress level accordingly, or making recommendations to the human therapist in charge.