The hand and fingers are essential organs to perform a multitude of functional tasks in daily life, particularly to grasp and handle objects. In fact, the movements performed with the hand to grasp and handle objects, which can solicit up to 19 articulations driven by 29 muscles,1 can be grouped into two broad categories: power and precision grasps. Power grasping requires an individual performing gross motor tasks to generate large forces to firmly hold an object. In contrast, precision grasping requires an individual performing fine motor tasks to generate multiple levels of force to hold an object. The power grasps can be further characterized into cylindrical, spherical, or hook grasps whereas the precision grasps can be further categorized into pinch, tripodal, or lumbrical grasps (Figure 1).2 Whenever sensorimotor impairments of the hand and fingers develop as a result of a neurological event (e.g. stroke, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s disease),3 the ability to grasp becomes jeopardized to various extents and may negatively impact functional abilities, as well as social participation and life satisfaction.4
Despite intensive neurorehabilitation efforts, the likelihood of regaining optimal hand and finger-related functional abilities remains low following a neurological event. For examples, three months after a stroke, only 12% of survivors say they have no problem at all whereas 38% report major difficulties with hand and finger-related functional abilities,5,6 while 75% of individuals with a spinal cord injury at the cervical vertebral level (i.e. tetraplegia), who were asked which function they would most like to have restored, chose upper extremity function,7 with improvement in hand function being their highest-ranked goal.8 Therefore, it is no surprise that one of the most commonly expressed goals of individuals who have sustained a neurological event (i.e. stoke, tetraplegia) and rehabilitation professionals is to engage in neurorehabilitation interventions that can reduce hand and finger sensorimotor impairments, thus improving related functional abilities that are crucial for optimal social participation and life satisfaction.
Rehabilitation strategies designed to maximize hand and finger-related functional abilities are predominantly founded on activity-based therapy, integrating the principles of neuroplasticity.9 Such an approach requires these individuals to engage in meaningful hand- and finger-specific exercises that they must repeat intensively on a daily basis.10,11 In fact, to expect beneficial neuroplastic adaptations, animal studies focusing on gait suggest that up to 1000 to 2000 steps must be taken daily, whereas human studies focusing on grasping in stroke survivors suggest that at least 100 repetitions need to be completed daily.12 Although the evidence suggests the need, adhering to these principles13 remains challenging in clinical practice, especially given various time and productivity constraints. Indeed, it is common to observe in clinical practice that exercise programs are performed individually with direct supervision by a rehabilitation professional, which leads to productivity issues and limits the possibility of implementing interventions at high intensity.14,15 In fact, evidence suggests that the number of repetitions observed for upper extremity work in stroke survivors undergoing neurorehabilitation typically ranges between 12 and 60 repetitions per session, which is far below the number required to expect neuroplastic adaptations.16,17 In addition, recovery may be limited by lack of treatment time, due to the elevated demand for neurorehabilitation services and increased therapists’ workload, especially in publicly funded healthcare environments.18 As a result, individuals with sensorimotor deficits undergoing intensive functional rehabilitation may not achieve the full potential of their hand and fingers sensorimotor and related functional recovery and may reach a ‘recovery plateau’ earlier than expected during the rehabilitation process.
To overcome this challenge, the last decade has seen substantial progress in the development of soft robotic gloves that can facilitate hand and finger movements when performing activities of daily living (ADL) and instrumental activities (iADL) that require grasping objects.19 Moreover, these soft robotic gloves are predicted to be a promising adjunct neurorehabilitation intervention to potentiate the effects of conventional rehabilitation interventions and are now about to be introduced into clinical practice; their effects, however, remain uncertain due to a paucity of evidence. In this context, the present review aims to map, for the first time, the evidence of the effects of the soft robotic glove on the performance of hand- and finger-related functional activities (i.e. with vs. without the technology) and on hand and finger sensorimotor and related functional abilities (i.e. before vs. after an intervention using the technology), among individuals with hand and finger sensorimotor impairments and related disabilities and, whenever investigated, patients’ satisfaction related to the use of the soft robotic glove. Specifically, this review seeks to address the following objectives: (1) determine the effects of rehabilitation interventions using soft robotic gloves; and (2) determine the acceptability and the perceived usefulness of this technology.[…]