PRIME project offers hope to "walk again"

After falling 12 feet onto her back on bare concrete, while working on her parents’ farm, Emily DeVooght was told she may never walk again. Or run. Or ride her horse. Or work (much) on the farm.  She had crushed her T12 vertebrae, and was, according to her doctors, a paraplegic.

That news didn’t sit with her well. Nor did her physical therapist accept it.

Kim Spranger, a PT with UP Rehab Services in Marquette, was familiar with a product called SpeedMaker TM, used to help injured athletes regain muscle strength and flexibility, or to help train healthy athletes for increased performance. The original device—a harness over the chest and waist with straps that go around the thighs to cultivate resistance — can be modified for use in clinical settings. In this new version, dubbed NewGait TM by its creators, additional bands extend from the straps just below the knees to straps on the feet, which, according to the company, offers “assistance to both hip flexion and dorsiflexion (muscles), allowing for increased stride length and stride frequency.” The important point is that NewGait TM allowed DeVooght to overcome the physical limitations imposed by her injury.

“The first time I put it on I gained so much confidence, like I was in control of my body again… It has helped me tremendously,” she said, a quote captured in a promotional video published by SpeedMaker at

In just four weeks, DeVooght had taken her first steps, with assistance from the device. In time, she is expected to enjoy a full recovery, which means she’ll be back to work on farm, among other things.  

“Even for me, I just knew it was going to make a difference but I had no idea to what level,” Spranger said.

Randall Jensen, professor of Exercise Science at NMU, said traumatic injury is not the only potential circumstance for new therapies to utilize NewGait TM. Working with students and groups of NMU athletes, Jensen conducted a study helping to prove efficacy of the SpeedMaker TM device in athletic therapy in 2015. The project was funded by NMU’s internal PRIME fund (Progressive Research and Innovative mutual Exploration). Now he’s partnering with colleague Sarah Clarke, assistant professor of Exercise Science at NMU, and physical therapists in the Gwinn/Marquette area to gather data on how NewGait TM can help patients experiencing muscle weakness or functionality problems due to diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis.

The collaborative studies will examine the efficacy of this modified device when utilized in clinical applications to improve an individual’s gait, muscle strength and functional capacity. In addition to DeVooght’s promising story, PTs have noted anecdotal evidence of success in clinical settings among MS and other patients. NewGait TM creators claim on the website the device has potential to improve gait, balance and core stabilization, addressing physical challenges related to MS, traumatic brain injuries, amputations, ankle fractures, paralysis, knee replacements, strokes, lower back injuries, hemiplegia, osteoarthritis of the knees and hip replacements. Jensen and his collaborators aim to gather data to support these claims.

Additionally, Jensen and Clarke will extend the impact of this practice by providing in-service education for physical therapists in the Upper Peninsula (UP) region. This in-service education will present data on the efficacy of the device in addition to instruction on fitting and use, particularly for patients with neurological motor deficits. The SpeedMaker TM device has already been tested among athletes, and now investigators will focus on the NewGait TM version.

Spranger of UP Rehab noted the device modifies gait to improve flex movements via motor learning changes. These changes occur when the body moves through a specific movement pattern that may induce muscle memory. Long-term muscle memory happens when a movement is repeated many times, eventually allowing it to occur without conscious effort. Muscle memory may also mean that less volitional muscle force needs to be developed. An acute case study conducted by UP Rehab on an MS patient reported using the NewGaitTM device during a six-week rehabilitation program led to improvements in walking gait technique and performance. These improvements were demonstrated via increases in stride length, decreased time to walk 50 meters and increases in the ability to walk for distance.

Clarke and other team members are seeking funds to continue to gather evidence regarding efficacy of SpeedMaker TM and NewGait TM, which are being used increasingly with success by therapists in the Gwinn/Marquette area. Additionally they hope to continue training therapists in the wider UP region on the use of the device via in-service education. Such training will allow for enhanced delivery of care across the UP region and the potential for improving quality of life of patients with MS and, potentially, other neuromuscular conditions.

The next application deadline for the second round of Northern PRIME Fund support is July 20, 2018.