Leg Braces can help a Person with paraplegia to walk again

I have a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) and have neither voluntary movement nor feeling below my waist. My legs will not support me for standing or walking. My doctor decided that Reciprocating Gait Orthosis (known as RGOs or leg braces) were appropriate to help me to stand and walk. RGOs must be prescribed by a doctor, are custom built for every patient, are tweaked and adjusted over an extended period of time, and the patient must undergo training at a rehabilitation facility in order to learn how to use them safely. If your doctor decides that RGOs are appropriate for you, he will have to write a prescription for them. He will refer you to a company like www.hanger.com where mine were built. For further information on RGOs you might try googling reciprocating gait orthosis. In my case, I can only use them on flat surfaces like floors. I cannot use them on hills or grass. It takes a lot of physical effort to use them, so most of the time I use my manual wheelchair, but I use the leg braces at a relative's home where my wheelchair is too wide to get through the doors. (It's worth it, because we sometimes have Thanksgiving dinner there! RGOs also help me feel like I am my normal height. There's something psychologically reassuring about that if you sit in a wheelchair most of the time.

The leg braces viewed by themselves

Here you see the leg braces by themselves. Each leg brace is connected to the other by that funny looking metal mechanism that goes across the back of the braces. These RGOs were prescribed for me in 2001. Orthotic science and technology has made some significant advances since then, so you are not likely to see RGOs that are exactly like mine.

A close-up of the reciprocating gait mechanism

The heavy, curved bar that goes from one side to the other has a pivot point in the middle. When one leg goes forward, the bar moves up on one side and down on the other. That pushes the other leg backward.

I put the leg braces on while in my wheelchair

I put the leg braces on while I am in my wheelchair. I have to use shoes that are about two sizes larger than my regular shoes because the braces work better if I have a big platform (big shoes) on which to stand. It helps to be flexible because I have to put my shoes on while my legs are straight out in front of me. The braces are tightly strapped to my stomach with velcro straps.

Ready to stand up using my walker and braces.

When I have tightened all of the velcro straps I'm ready to stand up. It requires some strength because I have to lift my whole body weight with my arms. As you can tell from the picture I am quite heavy. I weigh 200 lbs and should weigh around 150 because my leg muscles have atrophied.

Standing with the leg braces

Here, I was successful in hoisting my oversized body to a standing position. It would be much easier to stand and walk if I weighed less. I might even be able to use forearm crutches if I weighed less. Exercise and diet have become extremely important now that I spend most of my time in a wheelchair.

Walking with the braces

Since I do not have any voluntary muscle movement in either leg, the movement of the leg braces is controlled by tightening my stomach muscles and shifting my weight with my arms which are holding onto a walker. Some people are able to use forearm crutches instead of a walker. That makes it easier for them to get through narrow doorways and even climb stairs if they can lift their own weight. But the forearm crutches are much more difficult to use than the walker. I just use a walker.

Standing in the real EZ stand

It is possible for me to stand without holding onto the walker although I am not "relaxed". I think this is a subtle problem of adjusting the leg braces correctly. By putting some orthotics in my shoes I can shift my weight so that it is easier to stand. By adjusting other aspects of the leg braces I think I can stand straighter. As the staff at Hanger Orthotics in Knoxville said: "Using these leg braces is a continuing process of adjustment. We don't just measure your body, make the braces and say goodbye. You'll be coming back frequently to adjust the braces. That's normal. The adjustments will make the leg braces easier to use."

Each step is like doing a stomach crunch and a pushup at the same time. This is aerobic exercise! It is especially important because it provides a weight bearing exercise while I am in a standing position. Weight bearing exercise helps prevent bone mass loss (osteoporosis) which can lead to broken bones. Standing exercise works my heart far better than sitting exercise. Standing promotes better circulation which helps prevent blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes. Use of leg braces enables me to walk around my home and reach into the high cabinets where my wife is likely to hide the cookies. But walking is most important because it provides great health benefits.