Robot-mediated rehabilitation is an innovative exercise-based therapy using robotic devices that enable the implementation of highly repetitive, intensive, adaptive, and quantifiable physical training. Since the first clinical studies with the MIT-Manus robot (1), robotic applications have been increasingly used to restore loss of motor function, mainly in stroke survivors suffering from an upper limb paresis but also in cerebral palsy (2), multiple sclerosis (3), spinal cord injury (4), and other disease types. Thus, multiple studies suggested that robot-assisted training, integrated into a multidisciplinary program, resulted in an additional reduction of motor impairments in comparison to usual care alone in different stages of stroke recovery: namely, acute (5–7), subacute (1, 8), and chronic phases after the stroke onset (9–11). Typically, patients engaged in the robotic therapy showed an impairment reduction of 5 points or more in the Fugl-Meyer assessment as compared to usual care. Of notice, rehabilitation studies conducted during the chronic stroke phase suggest that a 5-point differential represents the minimum clinically important difference (MCID), i.e., the magnitude of change that is necessary to produce real-world benefits for patients (12). These results were collated in multiple review articles and meta-analyses (13–17). In contrast, the advantage of robotic training over usual care in terms of functional benefit is less clear, but there are recent results that suggest how best to organize training to achieve superior results in terms of both impairment and function (18). Indeed, the use of the robotic tool has allowed us the parse and study the ingredients that should form an efficacious and efficient rehabilitation program. The aim of this paper is to provide a general overview of the current state of robotic training in upper limb rehabilitation after stroke, to analyze the rationale behind its use, and to discuss our working model on how to more effectively employ robotics to promote motor recovery after stroke.
Upper Extremity Robotic Therapy: Current Status
Robotic systems used in the field of neurorehabilitation can be organized under two basic categories: exoskeleton and end-effector type robots. Exoskeleton robotic systems allow us to accurately determine the kinematic configuration of human joints, while end-effector type robots exert forces only in the most distal part of the affected limb. A growing number of commercial robotic devices have been developed employing either configuration. Examples of exoskeleton type include the Armeo®Spring, Armeo®Power, and Myomo® and of end-effector type include the InMotion™, Burt®, Kinarm™ and REAplan®. Both categories enable the implementation of intensive training and there are many other devices in different stages of development or commercialization (19, 20).
The last decade has seen an exponential growth in both the number of devices as well as clinical trials. The results coalesced in a set of systematic reviews, meta-analyses (13–17) and guidelines such as those published by the American Heart Association and the Veterans Administration (AHA and VA) (21). There is a clear consensus that upper limb therapy using robotic devices over 30–60-min sessions, is safe despite the larger number of movement repetitions (14).
This technic is feasible and showed a high rate of eligibility; in the VA ROBOTICS (9, 11) study, nearly two thirds of interviewed stroke survivors were enrolled in the study. As a comparison the EXCITE cohort of constraint-induced movement therapy enrolled only 6% of the screened patients participated (22). On that issue, it is relevant to notice the admission criteria of both chronic stroke studies. ROBOTICS enrolled subjects with Fugl-Meyer assessment (FMA) of 38 or lower (out of 66) while EXCITE typically enrolled subjects with an FMA of 42 or higher. Duret and colleagues demonstrated that the target population, based on motor impairments, seems to be broader in the robotic intervention which includes patients with severe motor impairments, a group that typically has not seen much benefit from usual care (23). Indeed, Duret found that more severely impaired patients benefited more from robot-assisted training and that co-factors such as age, aphasia, and neglect had no impact on the amount of repetitive movements performed and were not contraindicated. Furthermore, all patients enrolled in robotic training were satisfied with the intervention. This result is consistent with the literature (24).
The main outcome result is that robotic therapy led to significantly more improvement in impairment as compared to conventional usual care, but only slightly more on motor function of the limb segments targeted by the robotic device (16). For example, Bertani et al. (15) and Zhang et al. (17) found that robotic training was more effective in reducing motor impairment than conventional usual care therapy in patients with chronic stroke, and further meta-analyses suggested that using robotic therapy as an adjunct to conventional usual care treatment is more effective than robotic training alone (13–17). Other examples of disproven beliefs: many rehabilitation professionals mistakenly expected significant increase of muscle hyperactivity and shoulder pain due to the intensive training. Most studies showed just the opposite, i.e., that intensive robotic training was associated with tone reduction as compared to the usual care groups (9, 25, 26). These results are shattering the resistance to the widespread adoption of robotic therapy as a therapeutic modality post-stroke.
That said, not all is rosy. Superior changes in functional outcomes were more controversial until the very last years as most studies and reviews concluded that robotic therapy did not improve activities of daily living beyond traditional care. One first step was reached in 2015 with Mehrholz et al. (14), who found that robotic therapy can provide more functional benefits when compared to other interventions however with a quality of evidence low to very low. 2018 may have seen a decisive step in favor of robotic as the latest meta-analysis conducted by Mehrholz et al. (27) concluded that robot-assisted arm training may improve activities of daily living in the acute phase after stroke with a high quality of evidence However, the results must be interpreted with caution because of the high variability in trial designs as evidenced by the multicenter study (28) in which robotic rehabilitation using the Armeo®Spring, a non-motorized device, was compared to self-management with negative results on motor impairments and potential functional benefits in the robotic group.
The Robot Assisted Training for the Upper Limb after Stroke (RATULS) study (29) might clarify things and put everyone in agreement on the topic. Of notice, RATULS goes beyond the Veterans Administration ROBOTICS with chronic stroke or the French REM_AVC study with subacute stroke. RATULS included 770 stroke patients and covered all stroke phases, from acute to chronic, and it included a positive meaningful control in addition to usual care.[…]