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YOUR HEALTH: The locomotor that gives kids a chance to walk

How researchers are using a specialized treadmill and therapy to help their tiniest patients
Credit: Ivanhoe Broadcast

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — An injury at birth, or an illness right after that causes a problem with the spinal cord, may prevent a child from ever walking. 

Scientists at the University of Louisville have designed a machine and therapy that works with a child's still developing neurological system to help them regain movement.

It's been like a miracle for little Luke Madison.

Born at just 33 weeks, Luke spent the first month of his life in the NICU.

Shortly after he came home to live with mom, Sarah, dad, Tim, and big sister Ruthie, Sarah noticed something wasn't right.

"Like he couldn't hold his head up," Sarah remembered.

"He wasn't really moving his arms and legs very much."

Doctors tested Luke and found he had a spinal cord injury that likely occurred in the womb or at birth.

"They told us that he would be fully paralyzed, and on a ventilator if that was showing up as an injury for us as an adult. But it was pretty miraculous that he was moving and breathing on his own."

Now at just over two years old, doctors say Luke is making huge developmental strides. 

Experts credit the improvement on an intensive therapy known as locomotor training. 

Done on a machine designed just for pediatric patients.

"We use a treadmill environment, a harness system to help unweight the child, somewhat," explained University of Louisville physical therapist Andrea Behrman.

Luke does locomotor training on the pediatric treadmill for one hour a day, five days a week, followed by additional physical therapy.

Trainers surround Luke and guide his feet. 

They encourage Luke to play while stepping. 

It engages his arms and hands.

"We're trying to realign what typically happens in development with a type of therapy to activate his nervous system, starting at the spinal cord," said Behrman.

Researchers say the locomotor training taps into the spinal cord's ability to help Luke regain movement and control of his midsection. 

Therapists say after one year of therapy, Luke no longer slumps forward in a chair or walker.

"This locomotor training has given him the opportunity to move," explained Sarah.

"And it's just like, turned him on. It's just been life changing for all of us."

Andrea Behrman says she can't tell the Madson's what Luke's specific prognosis will be but she does say he is getting better and stronger.

Improving the lives of others

A new designation for a regional consortium led by Virginia Commonwealth University will expand research efforts to improve patients' quality of life and offer opportunities for them to receive the best care for spinal cord injury in the country. 

A center at Virginia Commonwealth University earned federal designation as one of only 14 Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Model Systems Centers in the U.S.

Another of the designated centers is Midwest Regional Spinal Cord Injury Care System at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

The program is the largest network of research centers devoted to SCI in the world. 

This network creates opportunities for critical collaboration between SCI clinicians and researchers from across the U.S. and allows investigators to generate sample sizes that are adequate for the development and testing of a wide variety of interventions.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.