SAUGET — It didn't take long for local physical therapist Mike Riley to see the value of the new AlterG anti-gravity treadmill.
"I spent three weeks working with a 73-year old recent amputee patient," Riley said of a man whose leg and foot had been removed below his knee. "For 2 1/2 or three weeks, we struggled on the parallel bars and for him to really get a feeling of control with his new prosthesis."
The patient also was legally blind, and had problems with his right foot.
"Walking was a real chore and his goal is to be able to walk independently with the least restrictive device possible," said Riley, who had the patient try the space-age treadmill at his Archview Medical Center rehabilitation facility in Sauget.
That's when both saw dramatic results.
"After a week and a half, his neuromuscular control of his limb has improved dramatically," Riley said. "When he gets out of the machine, he's floored. He can't believe how good of a workout he's getting in it, how tired his muscles feel and how good he feels he walks when he's finished."
Developed with a NASA-patented differential air pressure technique by Cailfornia-based AlterG, the treadmill includes an inflatable air chamber sealed around the waist of the subject.
As a result, therapists can reduce true body weight by up to 80 percent, allowing patients to develop a faster return with less pain and lower impact for post-surgical conditions, stress fractures or other lower body injuries.
NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose used the anti-gravity treadmill during injury rehab and other pro and college athletes have as well.
Not just for the injured, Riley said the device has also proven successful for those seeking weight loss, endurance athletes and long-distance runners and those with neurological conditions.
On Monday, a patient who recently underwent partial anterior cruciate and meniscus repair in his knee just a week ago was up and moving on the treadmill.
"What the machine allows him to do is walk normally while maintaining a decreased weight-bearing status," Riley explained. "Right now he's at about 30 percent of his total body weight. He would not be able to ambulate normally without pain, so this allows him an early return to normal walking mechanics."
Riley first saw the technology at a 2011 convention, then tried it out for himself. It has been around for more than five years with more than 1,000 machines at facilities around the world.
The company web site said there is another machine in Jerseyville and several in St. Louis.
"I have a serious knee problem. I've had four surgeries on my left knee," Riley said. "I was able to run without pain in my left knee for the first time in a while, so I thought that was neat. As a therapist, I thought 'Wow, what a great way to help people get into shape, too."
Riley said the anti-gravity treadmill is another important item at his disposal when trying to aid his patients.
"Physicals therapists in general are in a very lucky profession," he said. "We're in a position to be able to help people every day to improve their quality of life. This machine is a big, new tool in your box of things you can use on an everyday basis."
Riley has had his machine for 10 days and has seen dramatic results.
"It was originally designed for NASA astronauts so that they could try to figure out a way for people to exercise in space so there wouldn't be so much atrophy," Riley said. "Or to see what the effects of anti-gravity environment might do the joints of someone that was going to be in space long-term."
Riley said the new device has made an instant impact on his office.
"We've had upwards of 50 patients in the machine already," he said. "I would say 98 percent of the patients have taken an immediate liking to the machine and the way that it feels, and the way that they're able to correct their gait deviations with the video analysis system."
In the past, some orthopedic specialists would prescribe therapy work in a swimming pool or similar water-based setting to help keep pressure off of injured joints.
"This is easier than going to a pool, it's cheaper than maintaining a pool," Riley said. "It gives you less restrictive movement than a pool, with precise measurements."
Riley said the bottom line is quicker and more comfortable rehab times.
"We think it has an edge because No. 1, patients love it and No. 2 because it improves outcomes," he said.
"Hopefully patients and doctors alike will like the results they get from this machine. They're just not in every market yet."
(For more information on the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill, which is open to physical therapy patients and the public, call Archview Medical Center at 337-9461. There also is more info available at www.alterG.com.)