Walkasins: New Medical Technology Improves Balance And Mobility In The Elderly

Discrete device uses vibrotactile feedback to help wearers keep their balance

Loss of sensation in the feet increases the incidence of falls in people over 65. WalkasinsTM is a novel insole for the shoe that uses vibrations to help improve balance. Trials have shown that users walked with more confidence and the immediate benefits of wearing WalkasinsTM are comparable to 3 to 6 months of exercise therapy.

Each year one out of five people over the age of 65 injure themselves as a result of falling, costing the NHS over £1 billion. However, Joshua Wies, a chartered physiotherapist from The Cambridge Medical Centre, says many of these falls are preventable.

“To help keep our balance we receive feedback from sensations on the soles of our feet. But these sensations can weaken with age, and conditions such as diabetes can also cause numbness. So WalkasinsTM was developed by scientist Lars Oddsson to substitute this balance sensation using vibrotactile feedback of foot pressure. After only a few minutes of practice, using Walkasins becomes natural – the wearer learns to adjust balance in response to a direction-specific vibration.”

The WalkasinsTM insole detects when the wearer begins to lose balance, and sends a signal to a cuff worn round the calf. The cuff vibrates in a specific direction to tell the wearer which way they are leaning, allowing them to correct their balance and prevent the fall.

The economic burden of falls comes from extended stays in hospital or care homes and from the cost of treating injuries such as hip fracture. By reducing falls risk and increasing confidence WalkasinsTM have the potential not only to minimise these costs but also to improve quality of life for users.

A study at New York University at Buffalo analysed the benefits of vibrotactile feedback of foot pressure in a group of elderly people at risk of falling. Joshua says: “The trials showed that balance and gait improved, including stride length. Users were walking with more confidence. The benefits measured as improved balance and gait function (the Dynamic Gait Index) are in line with changes seen in published studies after 6 months of physical therapy aimed at improving balance.

“We also find that fear of falling causes people to become less active. This leads to muscle wastage and, ironically, an increased risk of falling. By improving balance, WalkasinsTM help people to exercise which builds up their muscles and further reduces the risk of falls. We have found that people feel more confident when they are wearing WalkasinsTM, so are more likely to stay mobile.”

People with prosthetic legs could also benefit. They completely lack the feedback of sensation from the soles of their feet, and WalkasinsTM would artificially replace it. The cuff can potentially be worn anywhere on the body, giving them the feedback needed to balance.

WalkasinsTM is the first vibrotactile therapeutic technology that provides foot pressure information designed to reduce the risk of falling. Current ways of dealing with falls include walking sticks and frames, but these can be unsafe and awkward to use and patients often avoid using them. WalkasinsTM are light and discrete, and can’t be seen under trousers, making them a more effective and comfortable alternative to conventional walking aids.

Written by Nina Beadle

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