Weighted vest helps patients improved balance

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comFebruary 24, 2014 

For Jessica Embry, success is carrying a cup of water without spilling it.

Because Embry, 59, of Lexington has spinocerebellar atrophy, a neurological disease that affects her balance and ability to walk smoothly, that simple task eluded her.

But after receiving physical therapy and being fitted with a BalanceWear vest, things improved dramatically for her.

"I am so pleased," she said. "I don't know what to do. I went from way down to way up."

"Now, I wear it every day all day long," she said. "I even exercise in it."

Embry's vest was fitted with small, strategically placed weights in increments of an eighth of a pound. When fitted properly, the weights can have an immediate impact on how steady a person feels when standing and walking, said Dana Lykins, the physical therapist who fitted Embry.

Lykins, who works at neurological outpatient physical therapy at Baptist Health Rehab, said she has seen significant improvement in about 80 percent of her patients who wear the vest. She is so impressed that she is helping to train other physical therapists statewide on using the BalanceWear vest properly.

"A lot of patients just feel like, 'Whoa, I feel so grounded,'" she said.

Cynthia Gibson-Horn, a California-based physical therapist, created the vest 13 years ago. She is now vice president and chief technology officer of Motion Therapeutics Inc., which produces BalanceWear vests.

Adding weights to a vest sounds simple, but the neurological functions of the change are still being studied. The National Institutes of Health awarded researchers a $300,000 grant to untangle how the process works, Gibson-Horn said. But even without the research, there is no doubt that it works, she said.

The vest is being used in 12 states to treat a variety of diagnosis including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, stroke, scoliosis, low back problems, falling problems of the elderly and ataxia (a lack of voluntary coordination of muscle movement).

Gibson-Horn, who works as a physical therapist, said she has seen patients from all over the world. Within the past month, she has seen patients from Australia, Canada, Argentina and Denmark.

Many of them are desperate for help. Some have tried yoga or tai chi to improve their balance, she said, but there is little available to treat imbalance.

There is no drug treatment for some conditions, including ataxia.

Lykins likes that the vest can help people who can't get to physical therapy easily and people who don't have insurance coverage for physical therapy, she said.

The vest can show improvements that would take months to achieve through therapy alone.

Plus, she said, patients like Embry feel steady enough to practice their physical therapy exercises on their own at home.

In some cases, she said, insurance covers the cost of a vest, which can run between $800 and $950.

There also are some grants available to cover the costs. Most important to Lykins is that the vest decreases the risk of falls that could compound her patient's existing problems.

Any downside to the vest? Lykins said the vest can be warm to wear.

But Embry is OK with that. She'll just get herself a glass of water and cool down.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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