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We Can Rebuild: Technology and Rehabilitation

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 9, 2023

“Accidents happen.” We use this phrase to explain away everything from spilled food to car wrecks, but what happens after the accident? 


Every year, millions around the world find themselves in crippling accidents; in 2019, automotive accidents alone accounted for two million serious injuries. The victims can emerge with amputated limbs, heavy scarring, or loss of mental faculties. Once upon a time, such a tragedy could mean the victim could never even hope for an ordinary life again–but not anymore. 


Practically every modern science has been rallied to the cause of rehabilitation. The field is undisputedly led by the creators of prosthetic and robotic limbs; these have come a long way from the “peg leg” of old, and are now crafted with the same materials and care that go into aircrafts and private yachts. Modern prosthetics can mimic the function of a biological limb so well that the user can even engage in competitive sport–South African athlete Oscar Pistorius used carbon-fiber prosthetics in the Olympic games, becoming the first double amputee to compete. 


A logical next step in rehabilitation technologies was the introduction of robotics, giving the victims back the dexterity and motor function they lost. Certain robotics can even be used to counter birth defects; in the United States, the FDA has already approved a device to allow paraplegics to walk. Replacement devices have been developed to run on even the most minute of actions, to allow even a heavily damaged individual to operate them with ease. Noted mathematician Steven Hawking used a single muscle in his cheek to operate a computer that spoke for him, despite the fact that the rest of his facial muscles had been paralyzed by a neural disease. 


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Rehabilitation from a serious accident is not only physical, though. The effects and experiences leave lasting psychological damage that can be far harder to repair. Thankfully, there exist many technological solutions for these patients as well. With the advent of scans like the PET scan, therapists can detect certain patterns of brain activity under different stimuli and develop a treatment plan based on that data. Virtual reality has also begun to gain traction as a means of therapy; the ability to reconstruct traumatic incidents or introduce stimuli in a controlled manner has proven valuable in resolving post-traumatic mental health conditions. 


These treatments are only the most common in a long list of the methods by which modern technology can be used to offer the injured or disabled a normal life. Even those suffering from mental disabilities such as autism or palsy have found technology to be a welcome bridge to an ordinary experience, providing them a means of locomotion, expression, and an invaluable measure of independence. 


The single blot on this otherwise exceptional resume is the price; many of these methods are considered well beyond the financial reach of the vast majority of patients. Several nonprofits have been formed to help patients, but for many, at the moment such treatments remain out of reach.

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