The instrumented cane provides added support while it analyzes a patient's gait to determine risk of falling. (Credit: Vanderbilt University)

Engineers have developed an instrumented cane that not only provides added support but can also analyze a patient's gait to determine risk of falling. The "IntelliCane" can quantitatively calculate falling risk as accurately as a physical therapist can with their own eyes.

The researchers wanted to develop a tool that could help therapists collect richer data about their patients' gaits as they went about their everyday lives, enabling therapists to intervene more quickly if needed. They rigged an off-the-shelf offset cane with inertial and force sensors connected to a wireless microcontroller that provides real-time data on how a person uses the cane while walking. The data is fed into an algorithm that analyzes the sensor data and pulls out information about the steadiness of the user's gait.

When they had a design that worked, the engineers tested the system with nine patients. First, they asked the patient to walk around using the IntelliCane. Then they were asked to participate in a standard risk assessment procedure called the Dynamic Gait Index in the presence of a physical therapist, who scored their performance. After analyzing the cane data, the researchers determined that they could predict each patient's DGI score with a high degree of confidence.

Now that the initial study has validated the basic approach, the researchers are convinced that it could have a number of benefits. If a person with a balance problem uses the cane regularly, for example, it may be able to detect when its user's sense of balance begins to deteriorate and report this to his or her doctor. They also think it could be applied to other devices such as wheeled walkers and crutches.

With more advanced analysis, the IntelliCane might even be capable of providing detailed enough information to enable doctors to diagnose specific diseases that affect a person's sense of balance. For example, Parkinson's might alter a person's gait in a manner that is detectably different from multiple sclerosis, they speculate.