St. Luke's brings 'anti-gravity' treadmill to Ketchum
ARIEL HANSEN/Times-News Physical therapist Kasey Fairfield, left, works with Norman Friedman of Ketchum at St. Luke’s-Elks Rehabilitation in Ketchum on Wednesday. Fairfield says the center’s new Alter-G ‘anti-gravity’ treadmill — which Friedman uses during therapy for his Parkinson’s disease and lower back pain — is an excellent tool for a variety of rehabilitation, as well as for elite athletes. ARIEL HANSEN/Times-News

KETCHUM — It’s not really anti-gravity, more like a hovercraft for your lower half.

But for patients at St. Luke’s-Elks Rehabilitation in Ketchum and for community members who use the center’s new Alter-G “anti-gravity” treadmill, the results are more important than the mechanism.

“I could run again, which I hadn’t been able to do for so long,” said Jenny Gatehouse of Ketchum, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. In October 2009 she traveled to San Francisco to use an Alter-G machine for two weeks. “My husband and kids said when I got off the plane, I didn’t limp anymore.”

As much as the physical benefits, relearning to walk more normally boosted Gatehouse’s spirits.

“It really builds your confidence, which is huge,” she said. So when she returned home, Gatehouse and her family made getting one of the machines in the Wood River Valley a priority.

“They were the energy and vision behind the project,” said Megan Thomas, executive director of St. Luke’s Wood River Foundation. The Alter-G cost about $30,000, all raised through private donations including an anonymous matching gift of $15,000. “Because this was purchased through philanthropy, we’re able to charge a really affordable fee.”

The Alter-G, developed by NASA, is primarily used in rehabilitation centers for patients with neurological difficulties (like Parkinson’s and head injuries), orthopedic challenges like joint replacement, and joint stressors like arthritis and obesity. But it has also been used by elite athletes, including professional football, soccer, and track and field.

To use it, patients or athletes put on large neoprene-like shorts that have a zippered seal at the top. They step into the lowered pressure compartment, then raise the compartment and seal it by zippering it closed. Air is pumped into the compartment, raising the lower half of the body to decrease weight and pressure on feet and legs.

There are only two Alter-G units in Idaho, said Kristin Biggins, manager of the rehab center; the other is at Therapeutic Associates in Boise.

Kasey Fairfield, a physical therapist at St. Luke’s-Elks Rehab in Ketchum, said the device is useful for many of her patients. Therapists can use balance boards on a stopped treadmill, have patients do squats, even have them walk up an incline backwards.

“It really is a good tool for therapists. We can be a lot more objective and exact,” she said.

For example, on a recent day she assisted Norman Friedman of Ketchum, who has Parkinson’s and lower back pain. As she peered through the clear plastic bubble around the treadmill, she advised Friedman to try lengthening his stride.

“I can watch his walking pattern a little better; it’s easier to tell what’s going on,” Fairfield said, comparing the Alter-G to its most common counterpart: therapy in a pool of water. Compared with the water, it’s easier for a patient to transfer techniques learned on the treadmill, because the muscle memories developed are closer to natural, ordinary motion. “Hopefully over time it’ll carry over to land, without the use of any device.”

The Alter-G can also be a better choice than water for patients not far out of surgery, because their incisions don’t need to heal before they use it.

The only caution against using the machine is poor circulation with the possibility for blood clotting, because the device uses increased air pressure around the user’s lower half to provide the anti-gravity effect.

Ariel Hansen may be reached at 788-3475 or ahansen@magicvalley.com.

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