Ask the Denver attorney whose legs were smashed in a car accident. Ask the veterans rehabilitating from injuries sustained while defending the nation. Ask NBA star Blake Griffin, or NFL safety Jim Leonhard, both of whom endured leg injuries playing their sports. Ask U.S. soccer pro Charlie Davies, who returned to the field only a month after suffering life-threatening trauma in a car crash. All will tell you about the benefits of NASA-derived technology.

In space, in order to prevent bone loss and muscle atrophy, astronauts exercise on treadmills equipped with a loading harness.

Each of these people were aided in their recovery by an innovation that emerged from NASA research, and now provides a lift to people around the world who suffer from mobility issues.

Developed for Astronauts, Adapted for Earth

In order to prevent bone loss and muscle atrophy, astronauts exercise on treadmills equipped with a loading harness. However, the treadmill loading harness is uncomfortable and prevents astronauts from exercising normally and with the same intensity as on Earth. While he was studying the biomechanics of exercise, Ames Research Center scientist Robert Whalen suggested using air pressure as an effective way of applying a high force, equal to body weight, to astronauts during treadmill exercise to replace the harness system.

After patenting his gravity differential technology in 1992, Whalen licensed his patent in 2005 to a private company called AlterG to help rehabilitate patients needing support as they learned (or re-learned) to stand, walk, and run. The Menlo Park, CA company adapted the technology for athletic and medical uses here on Earth in the form of a specialized “anti-gravity” treadmill. This rehabilitation device applies air pressure to a patient’s lower body in order to unload up to 80 percent of a patient’s weight, which reduces the stress placed on the body during rehabilitation.

Help for Soldiers, Athletes, and Seniors

Derived from technology developed at NASA Ames, the AlterG “anti-gravity” treadmill requires only the touch of a button to increase the air pressure around the lower body, lifting, reducing strain, and minimizing impact on the legs. This allows the patient to exercise and strengthen injured or weakened limbs.

A variety of patients — whether suffering from brain injury, neurological disorders, athletic injuries, or other stresses on the joints such as arthritis or morbid obesity — now use the NASAderived technology in physical therapy. Professional and college sports teams across the U.S. feature the AlterG treadmill in their training facilities. Injured soldiers walk and run with the technology’s assistance at military hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Seniors get essential exercise using the support the machine provides, as do people with bariatric weight issues who cannot normally support their own weight. The treadmill has been a proven option for neurological uses as well, including helping patients re-learn proper balance and gait, and transition to independent movement after traumatic brain injury.

The success of AlterG’s NASA-derived technology has allowed the company to add 65 employees, and the anti-gravity treadmill is now used around the world.

“We have been able to have players that are recovering from injuries start to run at least a week, and sometimes up to a month, before they would have been able to normally,” said Bill Tillson, head athletic trainer for Italian soccer club AC Milan.

Ask U.S. soccer star Oguchi Oneywu, who recovered from a knee injury with the help of the AlterG treadmill. Ask podiatric surgeon Arnol Saxena, who believes the technology “will become the standard in rehabilitation and training.” Ask the bariatric patient in Colorado who, using the treadmill, was able to walk for the first time in over a year. All will tell you about the benefits of NASA derived technology.

This article was written by Bo Schwerin for Spinoff. Click here for the full story.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the November, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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