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How Walking Backward Might Help Stroke Survivors

Colleen Kelley/UC Creative + Brand
Dr. Awosika Oluwole is studying how walking backward on a treadmill could lead to vast improvements for stroke survivors.

Some seven million people in the U.S. have experienced a stroke, leaving around 66% unable to independently move around. A researcher with the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute is studying how walking backward on a treadmill could lead to vast quality of life improvements for stroke survivors.

"The goal of the study is to improve walking independence," says Oluwole Awosika, MD, assistant professor in the department of neurology and rehabilitative medicine at UC and a UC Health stroke expert. He notes strokes are life-changing events for survivors and their families. "Walking independence is one limiting factor for stroke survivors to return to work, to be able to be more active in the community. It's a contributor to depression, a contributor to falls, and so a goal of this study is to be able to better understand how to improve walking."

Awosika hypothesizes that backward walking on a treadmill will encourage the brain to use underutilized areas, improve muscles and motor control, and train people's bodies to have trust in their vestibular systems, which handle things like motion and balance.

"At the end of this study we'll know not just how backwards walking influences these particular aspects but we'll know more about forward walking as well and how changes in these systems improve overall walking recovery."

In short, by walking backward on a treadmill, stroke survivors might be able to improve or regain the ability to walk forward on their own.

Credit Colleen Kelley /UC Creative + Brand

The study also challenges the notion that all stroke recovery happens within the first six months and improvements after that are unlikely. Awosika says traditional training focuses on forward walking, ignoring and underutilizing important areas of the brain, muscles and vestibular system.

Initial findings were published in the journal Brain Communications in April. Awosika and his fellow researchers are preparing to begin Phase Two, in which they aim to study 40 stroke survivors. That work is expected to take about three years.

The results could mean more independence for stroke survivors and family members and caregivers. The increased activity could also improve future medical outcomes following stroke.

"Many people, because of the inability to walk, end up not walking at all for the fear of falling ... and end up not being active at all," Awosika says. That can lead to poor cardiovascular health, increasing the risk for additional strokes or heart attacks. An additional benefit of the study, he points out, is it will provide participants with more exercise led by certified physical therapists.

The research team will use special sensors to study participants. Awosika describes it as "cutting edge, sensor-based technology that will allow us to be able to measure changes in cerebellar and vestibular activity as well as changes that are happening with motor control."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.