Back Pain

Updated 04 July 2014

Stepping out of a wheelchair in a bionic walking suit

Spinal cord injured South Africans find hope at new rehab centre, just walk bionics.


A battery-operated bionic walking suit or wearable robot is enabling South Africans with spinal cord injuries to stand and walk again. Incredible technology and engineering, the clinical rehabilitation tool is being used at Just Walk Bionics, an advanced rehabilitation centre based in Rivonia (Gauteng).

Opened in June 2013 by incomplete quadriplegic Justin Smith, Just Walk Bionics is Ekso Bionics? official reference centre in South Africa and the only centre of its kind in Southern Africa. After being shot in his C6 cervical vertebrae in a near-fatal car hijacking, Smith began his journey to recovery in 2004 and walked again in 2007. Believing in the inherent benefits associated with walking again after years in a wheelchair, opening the rehabilitation centre is part of a long-term vision for Smith.

The only FDA and CE* approved bionic exoskeleton available, this technological marvel is changing the lives of wheelchair bound patients, including those with neurological disorders such as MS, ALS, and Guillain Barre, Parkinson’s disease, and generalised weakness caused by other conditions. In future, it may also be used for patients who have suffered a stroke.


The user needs arm function and adequate upper extremity strength to manage crutches or a walker as determined during the clinical evaluation. Patients, who can transfer independently from a wheelchair to a chair, are between 150-190cm (5’2” – 6’2”) tall and weigh 100kg (220lbs) or less, are the most likely candidates.

The benefits of walking again after years of confinement are wide-ranging and Smith says that walking in the suit is addictive. “Being mobile, changing your perspective and being able to look people in the eye again evokes feelings that are hard to describe unless you’ve been there. Experiences that able-bodied individuals would not think twice about, the psychological benefits of walking again using the Ekso cannot be downplayed.”

Beyond the psychological benefits, anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of the Ekso has other significant rehabilitative benefits. These include decreases in spasticity, chronic systemic pain, and UTIs, while some patients also experience better overall bladder and bowel function. Metabolic and cardio benefits have also been seen.

All candidates must be screened and cleared as medically appropriate by a physician prior to walking in the suit. They are then evaluated by biokineticists Justin Jeffery and Charl Kaschula, who have received extensive clinical training from Ekso Bionics in rehabilitating patients using the Ekso.

Rehabilitation tool

Justin Jeffery says: “Most patients are able to master the suit in two to three, one hour sessions, but this varies from patient to patient. An experienced user can fit or remove the suit in less than five minutes and expect to walk for up to 50mins in an hour long session”.

Strapped over the patients clothing battery-powered motors drive the legs and replace neuromuscular function. Motors power the hip and knee joints, and all motion is initiated through the use of an external controller.

The current model can only be used on flat surfaces but future generation suits may have the ability to navigate steps. While the current device is a rehabilitation tool, in time personal units will be available through Just Walk Bionics.

A centre that is redefining mobility and redefining hope for wheelchair-bound patients, Smith is sharing the benefits of his journey with South Africans in a similar position. In addition to rehabilitation with the Ekso, the centre provides non-traditional exercise-based therapy to individuals suffering from spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders.

For further information, visit, or join us on Facebook: JustWalkBioinics.


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Susan qualified as a Physiotherapist in 1990, and completed her master’s degree in Physiotherapy in 2013 at the University of Pretoria. She has a special interest in human biomechanics, as well as the interaction between domestic and work-related ergonomics.

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