A question of balance

It looks a little like an old-fashioned phone booth, but it's really a new state-of-the art balance machine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Spain Rehabilitation Center that helps patients like 70-year-old Julia Crawford of Birmingham learn how to walk again. Crawford, who suffered a stroke in June, has done three sessions on the device, called the Neurocom SMART EquiTest machine. Since the stroke, she's needed a cane, or even a walker, to help her walk, but the machine - installed in late August 2010 — is helping her control her balance and relearn how to walk without aids.

"Balance problems can be difficult to diagnose and treat because they can be caused by a combination of conditions and movement issues," says Catherine Newhouse, administrative director of UAB Rehabilitation Services. "This new technology will help us provide the very best diagnostic and treatment options for patients with balance impairments caused by stroke, traumatic brain injury, orthopedic surgery, developmental disability or just getting older."

Balance is regulated by three different systems in the body — the eyes, the inner ear system and the body's general sense of where it is in space. For patients with balance issues, the Neurocom machine allows therapists to determine which of the three systems, or which combination of the three systems, is not working properly. It also provides exercises that therapists can use to strengthen a failing system.

"We cannot only evaluate, we can also treat patients using this machine," said Brian King, a UAB physical therapist. "We can see how far they can shift their weight, determine how they are standing." For example, King says, patients might be standing with all their weight on one leg and not know it. "For patients with balance issues, those at fall risk or who have already fallen, we can identify why they are falling and then we can treat those issues."

After her third session, Crawford already is seeing results.

"I walked 200 feet in six minutes, then the second time we did it, I walked 400 feet in six minutes," she said. "I'm working toward the day when the cane goes away."

The balance machine is the latest in a line of therapeutic devices provided by the Women's Committee of Spain Rehabilitation Center. The group raised the $100,000 needed to purchase the machine, much of it at an April 2010 fundraiser. The group has also funded other therapeutic devices at Spain, including the aquatic therapy pool and a weight-bearing treadmill.