Technological Advances Boost Quality of Life for Individuals with Spinal Cord Injury and Disease

Man in a wheelchair, view of only one wheel and armResearch and advances in technology – from new smartphone applications to robots to new electric powered wheelchairs – all are coming together to promote better quality of life for individuals with spinal cord injury or disease (SCI/D). 

Dr. Rory A. Cooper, distinguished professor at the Rehabilitation Science and Technology department at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke about new technological research – developed in partnership with the Rehabilitation Research and Development Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs – that can help prevent wheelchair failures, improve pain management, reduce pressure sores and assist with daily tasks for the more than 61,000 veterans who live with spinal cord injury or disease.

Cooper presented the research at Paralyzed Veterans of America’s annual Summit+Expo, which took place Aug. 27-29, 2013, in Orlando, Fla.

“What this research will do is raise the level of clinical practice so that people will get fitted better for their wheelchair and be better trained on how to use their wheelchairs,” Cooper said. “Clinicians will use that data to drive their practice, and that will hopefully change reimbursement policies so that better wheelchairs will be manufactured, covered and provided by insurance.”

One such advancement includes the smartphone-based Virtual Seating Coach, which mounts to a user’s wheelchair to provide customized coaching on how to manage pain, reduce pressure and alter wheelchair angle to perform specific tasks. Researchers are now looking to develop the Virtual Seating Coach into multiple smartphone platforms, Cooper said.

The department also is advancing new research into robotic technologies like Rex Bionics, Ekso Bionics and ReWalk to boost walking mobility, the MeBot for wheeled mobility, and the new KitchenBot to increase independence for cooking and cleaning for those with SCI/D.

“Once people have a new technology, it opens up new environments and new opportunities for them, often causing their perceptions to change,” Cooper said. “In some cases, the perceptions of others towards them change as well.”

Other advancements include research into repetitive strain injury prevention and transfers, including how to more safely propel a wheelchair to reduce the strain on the wrists and elbows, as well as examining wheelchair seating and axle positions and ergonomic versus standard hand rims. The department also is researching transfer mechanics, hand placement and a robotic assisted transfer device to help relieve the physical strain of transfers on caregivers, Cooper said. 

The department also runs education programs to help veterans access quality education and employment, including a transition program for disabled veterans who want to go to college, as well as its Advanced Inclusive Manufacturing program, which helps disabled individuals learn to be machinists or experts in fields like 3D printing.

“From a global perspective, we’re looking at maximizing the ability of people with spinal cord injury to fully participate in society – in their homes, communities, schools and the workplace,” Cooper said. “If you can prevent repetitive strain injuries or secondary injuries from occurring, you can live a more productive life that is less dependent on others. The idea is to open more of the world up for people with spinal cord injury.”

For more information or to register for Paralyzed Veterans of America’s 2014 Summit+Expo taking place Aug. 26-28, 2014 in Las Vegas, NV, visit this link.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and 


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