Background: After a neurological injury, mobility focused rehabilitation programs intensively train walking on treadmills or overground. However, after discharge, quite a few patients are not able to independently negotiate stairs, a real-world task with high physical and psychological demands and a high injury risk. To decrease fall risk and improve patients' capacity to navigate typical environments, early stair negotiation training can help restore competence and confidence in safe stair negotiation. One way to enable early training in a safe and permissive environment is to unload the patient with a body weight support system. We here investigated if unloaded stair negotiation complies with basic locomotor principles, in terms of enabling performance of a physiological movement pattern with minimal compensation.
Methods: Seventeen able-bodied participants were unloaded with 0-50% bodyweight during self-paced ascent and descent of a 4-tread staircase. Spatio-temporal parameters, joint ranges of motion, ground reaction forces and myoelectric activity in the main lower limb muscles of participants were compared between unloading levels. Likelihood ratio tests of separated linear mixed models of the investigated outcomes assessed if unloading affects the parameters in general. Subsequent post-hoc testing revealed which levels of unloading differed from unsupported stair negotiation.
Results: Unloading affected walking velocity, joint ranges of motion, vertical ground reaction force parameters and myoelectric activity in all investigated muscles for stair ascent and descent while step width and single support duration were only affected during ascent. A reduction with increasing levels of body weight support was seen in walking velocity (0.07-0.12 m/s), ranges of motion of the knee and hip (2-10°), vertical ground reaction force peaks (10-70%) and myoelectric activity (17-70%). An increase with unloading was only seen during ascent for ankle range of motion and tibialis anterior activity at substantial unloading.
Conclusions: Body weight support facilitates stair negotiation by providing safety and support against gravity. Although unloading effects are present in most parameters, up to 30% body weight support these changes are small, and no dysfunctional patterns are introduced. Body weight support therefore fulfills all the necessary requirements for early stair negotiation training.
Keywords: Body weight support; Gait pattern; Myoelectric activity; Stair negotiation; Unloading.