Devices & Diagnostics

Exercise for the immobile: Rehab chair delivers passive vibration therapy to the lower body

It might look like something you’d see in a gym, but the machine above is actually designed for hospitals and nursing homes to help patients with impaired mobility regain strength in their legs. The Rehab Chair designed by VibeTech delivers neuromusculoskeletal stimulation to people who cannot tolerate weight-bearing physical activity because of injury, surgery, disease […]

It might look like something you’d see in a gym, but the machine above is actually designed for hospitals and nursing homes to help patients with impaired mobility regain strength in their legs.

The Rehab Chair designed by VibeTech delivers neuromusculoskeletal stimulation to people who cannot tolerate weight-bearing physical activity because of injury, surgery, disease or age-related reduction in mobility.

Here’s how it works: First, the foot piece of the machine applies compression forces to the leg to simulate partial body weight loading. How much pressure is applied is adjusted based on the patient’s needs. Then it vibrates, sending vibrations through the feet, up the legs and into the hips and lower back, stimulating contraction of numerous muscles.

Clinical tests of the system produced improved balance, improved foot sensation and better mobility in nursing home residents who used walkers, VibeTech founder Jeff Leismer said. The machine is used for 10 minutes at a time, three to five times per week. Notably,  residents also “absolutely loved” the treatment, he said, in stark contrast to how many people feel about physical therapy.

More than 300 studies have been published on whole-body vibration, Leismer said. A quick Internet search of the literature produced a mixed bag of findings for various medical conditions. In one study, whole-body vibration therapy didn’t prevent bone loss in older women. Other studies in cystic fibrosis patients and people who had a total knee arthroplasty showed it improved muscle function, but not more than traditional therapy alone. However, in a study of osteoarthritis patients, it resulted in significantly more gain in knee extension strength, and in stroke and Parkinson’s disease trials it’s helped with balance and mobility (PDF). Leismer said other studies have demonstrated its ability to relieve pain, increase circulation and even have positive hormonal effects on patients.

The chair is initially being geared toward elder-care providers, as older adults tend to have the most ailments that could benefit from the therapy, and hospitals and nursing homes are also the facilities that are most likely to benefit financially from purchasing the chair, he said. Reimbursement is available, and because the chair has more applications than site-specific muscle stimulation therapies or whole-body vibration therapies that require standing on a platform, it may provide those facilities with an option to treat previously untreatable patients.

“One of the ways I think this technology is going to be most useful is its use right before you do other physical therapy programs,” Leismer said. “If it reduces pain and increases circulation, it’s going to enable them to work a little bit harder.”

Leismer, a biomedical engineer by training, got the idea for the chair back in 2001 and built the first version in 2002. After completing his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering, he incorporated the company in 2007 but didn’t have the financing to get it up and running full time, so he took a full-time job elsewhere.

Finally, at the end of  2010, he landed a $200,000 SBIR grant from the National Institutes of Health. In addition to the SBIR grant, VibeTech has brought in a small amount of private equity investment and some assistance through the Wisconsin Small Company Advancement Program.

VibeTech is now building out its production prototype and working with a large hospital chain in the Midwest, where it plans to implement the product there in early 2013. For now, it’s following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration class 1 exempt pathway to get commercial sales going, but will eventually pursue 510(k) clearance for certain indications. Leismer said he’s actively seeking investors and strategic partners to get the product out the door.

[Photo courtesy Jeff Leismer]