Columbia Researchers Develop Robotic Neck Brace To Study Cancer Treatment Progress

Researchers at Columbia Engineering and Columbia Department of Otolaryngology have developed a new robotic neck brace, which will prove helpful for doctors in understanding the effect of cancer treatments on the neck mobility of patients. This new robotic neck brace will also help doctors guide cancer patients in their recovery process.

According to doctors, head and neck cancer cells spread to lymph nodes in the neck and other organs as well. With these forms of cancer totaling 3 percent of all cancer types, doctors surgically remove the lymph nodes to stop the spread of the disease. The surgical removal of lymph nodes will help with cancer research, but leave the patient with extreme pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders for years to come.

Scott Troob, Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery and Division Chief of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said, "Identifying which patients may have issues with neck movement can be difficult, as the findings are often subtle and challenging to quantify. However, successfully targeting what difficulties they might have with mobility can help patients benefit from targeted physical therapy interventions."

It is to overcome these problems that Robotics and Rehabilitation Laboratory or ROAR at Columbia Engineering have developed the robotic neck brace to analyze head and neck motions in head and neck cancer patients. The neck brace is modeled on the neck braces they earlier developed for patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. The new brace was manufactured using 3D-printed materials and inexpensive sensors. The device, which is very easy to wear, was developed based on the head and neck movements of 10 healthy individuals.

In the new study, the researchers used the prototype brace, along with electrical measurements of muscle activity, to study the neck mobility of five cancer patients before and one month after their lymph nodes were removed. Research showed that the neck brace could pick up the changes in patient neck movements during their regular check-ups.

Researchers at Columbia Engineering said that this is the first study of its kind where a wearable robotic neck brace has been designed to characterize the full head and neck range of motion.

According to doctors, the use of the sensing neck brace allows a surgeon to screen patients postoperatively for movement difficulty, quantify their degree of impairment, and select patients for physical therapy and rehabilitation. In the future, researchers plan to manufacture neck braces to study larger number of patients through physical therapy to develop evidence-based protocols for rehabilitation. The studies are also ongoing to develop similar braces for other parts like the forearm, ankle and knee.

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