My Bionic Leg, Part 1

Would you intentionally subject yourself to electrical shocks if it helped you walk better?

My internet search for an aid that can help me walk better and continue to hide my disability led me to something called functional electrical stimulation, or FES.  These are devices that you wear on your leg which provide shocks to your leg muscles, causing them to contract at the appropriate point of your gait.

With my MS, the signals to and from my leg muscles are disrupted at a point in my spinal cord where demyelination has occurred.  Since the signals are not coming through normally, the muscles are not triggering normally, resulting in weakness and reduced coordination.

There are two leading devices on the market; Bioness and WalkAid.  Both work similarly.  Both have their loyal advocates and critics.  I will attempt to describe their differences, as I see them.

The first difference is with the Bioness L300 Plus.  Both devices have a cuff which is worn just below the knee and induces dorsiflexion, preventing “foot drop”.  However, the Bioness Plus also has a band that goes around the thigh assisting with control of the knee joint.  Oddly, it can only be worn to stimulate the quadriceps OR the hamstring, but not both.  I would have thought that they would have made it to stimulate both at the appropriate stage but they didn’t, at least not yet.  Both devices are expensive and insurance typically doesn’t cover them for MS.  So you are looking at ~$6k to start plus ongoing supply costs.  Adding on the Plus thigh unit for the Bioness bumps you up to almost $11k.  That’s a lot, but is it worth it?

Bioness has a heel sensor that is worn inside your shoe that tells the computer when you are starting your step and when you are putting your foot back down.  The walkaid has a motion sensor in the unit that measures the angle of the lower leg to determine the point where you are at in your stride.  What is the significance?  One fewer piece to the walkaid and the ability to go barefoot.  However, the Bioness may work a little better if you are not walking forward, i.e. stepping sideways, or if your walking speed varies a lot.

The Bioness is more attractive in my opinion.  It just looks like a more advanced modern product with the notched cuff and low profile electronic unit.  The walkaid looks a little less finished and has an ugly pack strapped on it.

The battery pack, while not attractive, does have a functional advantage.  The Bioness has rechargeable batteries that must be charged every night (they last approximately 12 hours).  The walkaid just uses a single disposable AA; much more convenient.

The Bioness has a small remote control that can fit in your pocket to turn it on/off and make intensity adjustments.  The Walkaid requires lifting up your pants leg to turn the unit on and off directly.

Summarizing:  The WalkAid is one unit which can be worn barefoot, no remote, has disposable batteries and is triggered by the lower leg angle.  The Bioness has a heel sensor and remote that work wirelessly, must be recharged every night and has an optional thigh unit.

Bioness will let you try it for a month for $500, $1000 if you need the thigh band as well.  Some distributors of WalkAid will let you try it for two weeks for free.

For me, the choice was easy. My knee control is compromised and the addition of a thigh unit made a big difference and thus, the other factors irrelevant.  Bioness wins round 1.

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