Working in a complex injury team I have encountered people who have suffered the most horrific spinal injuries, many of which resulted in permanent paralysis.
Their life and the lives of their family are turned upside down. With care requirements, home adaptations and countless other new considerations, their lifestyle is far removed from that they experienced prior to the injury. And just one of the many new challenges they face is learning how to use and navigate a powered wheelchair.
Most people with spinal cord injuries still have facial movement, so their assistive equipment is usually controlled through sip and puff technology, where signals are sent to a device by 'sipping' (inhaling) or 'puffing' (exhaling) on a straw inserted in the mouth.
This technology has been around since the 60s and has helped many people achieve a good level of independence. However innovation is never far away...
Tongue Guided Wheelchair
As most people with spinal injuries can still move their tongue, researchers at Georgia Tech have developed something called 'The Tongue Drive System'. This technology lets people who are paralysed from the neck down drive a wheelchair using only their tongue.
It works via a tongue piercing with a magnetic stud that resembles jewellery but acts like a joystick. This has been developed in the hope that it will offer more mobility and independence for those people currently using other kinds of adaptive equipment.
So far 11 people have tested the device all of which were tetraplegic (partial or total loss of use of their limbs and torso). The device was compared against the current leading assistive technology which uses sip-and-puff control and the tongue drive system was found to be just as accurate and even a little faster.
See the person, not just the equipment
Jason Disanto was left paralysed from the neck down after a diving accident in 2009 and had to learn how to use a wheelchair controlled using the sip-and-puff system.
He agreed to test the new 'Tongue Drive System', alongside the research team and provide feedback. Jason has agreed to participate in the next round of testing and said:
"The Tongue Drive System will greatly increase my quality of life when I can start using it everywhere I go. With the sip-and-puff system, there is always a straw in front of my face. With the Tongue Drive, people can see you, not just your adaptive equipment."
Dr Ghovanloo, a biomedical engineer who created the new system plans ultimately to add additional functionality, enabling users to turn on the TV or the light with a flick of the tongue!
Independence and Quality of Life
At the moment the Tongue Drive System can only be used inside research laboratories, as thorough testing is needed in more real life situations before it can be sold. However it clearly offers hope for people like Jason to gain a greater degree of independence compared to the assistive technology currently available.
Innovations like this can be life changing for people with spinal injuries, allowing them to improve their quality of life at home and in the community.
About the author
Laura Reaney is a litigator within Spencers Solicitors Complex Injury team. Laura has extensive experience in dealing with claimants that have complex and serious injuries, and over the years has worked on various cases including those involving back and spinal injuries.