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Posted: 3/8/2010 1:18:51 PM EDT

Sounds like a good idea. To be honest I would have thought that this isn't new technology or thinking. I would have guessed that they had been doing this for decades.

Re-Learning to Walk on Submerged Treadmills
March 8, 2010 - 12:08 PM | by: Elizabeth Prann
Imagine being confined to a wheelchair or reliant on a walker and suddenly being able to walk. That is exactly what is happening in a physical therapy lab at Middle Tennessee State University near Nashville. Researchers are using treadmills submerged in 270 gallons of water to see if patients with spinal cord injuries can regain the ability to walk again. It’s a breakthrough therapy that has seen meaningful results. “Everybody who has been through the study has demonstrated improvement and primarily that has been in lower extremity strength and balance and cardiovascular endurance,” said Sandy Stevens, an MTSU physical therapist who is conducting the study. Walter Searcy III has been wheelchair bound for almost eight years after being diagnosed with a rare cancer in the spine. For him, getting in the tank is the only opportunity he has to stand upright and walk unassisted.

“I certainly have increased stamina and reduced [my] pain threshold,” said Searcy. The water provides a warm and safe environment. Every time Searcy walks on the track he strengthens his muscles, improves his balance and simply re-learns how to walk.

Stevens believes that we are all inherently wired to walk, something she says is evident when you watch infants and toddlers struggle to take their first steps. She believes the therapy on the underwater treadmills will regenerate damaged cells in the spinal cord that allows disabled patients to take steps again. Traditional methods use a harness and robotics but this method, makes the patient responsible for moving his or her own legs. The buoyancy of the water – a sort of zero-gravity weightless effect- makes movement much easier. For 66-year old Bunny Nichols, the feeling is liberating, “I can stand a little bit on my own now where before I couldn’t,” said Nichols.

Nichols is about halfway through her therapy at MTSU. The study, which ends in the summer, lasts about eight weeks at a time. Researchers work with patients like Nichols up to three times a week. Each session lasts about 30 minutes, depending on the patient’s strength. Nichols says although she doesn’t expect a miracle, she does hope to walk without her walker someday and so far- she’s three steps closer to that goal.

"I can stand a little bit on my own now where before I couldn’t,” Nichols says about the first time she took steps on her own. “I couldn’t believe it but I was like ‘thank you, thank you.”

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