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Healthcare in Japan

Healthy Cycle

A Leg-Powered Wheelchair from Japan Is Motivating the Disabled


Based in Sendai City in Miyagi Prefecture, TESS Co., Ltd. is a venture business that sells Profhand, a “pedal wheelchair” incorporating what is known as neuromodulation technology. CEO Kenji Suzuki established TESS in 2008 after obtaining the license for Profhand from its inventors, Yasunobu Handa, a visiting professor at Tohoku University, and his colleagues.

The term neuromodulation ordinarily refers to stimulating neural pathways in the central nervous system with electrical or chemical stimuli to ameliorate a disorder, but Profhand uses neither kind of stimulus. Pedals are installed in front, and the user pedals it like a bicycle to make the wheelchair move, and steers using a single control panel on the armrest. Pedaling backward makes the wheelchair go in reverse. Even users who can barely move one leg are eventually able to ride Profhand.

How is a half-paralyzed person able to pedal with both legs? Suzuki explains it this way. “When we walk, we move our arms and legs reciprocally without even thinking about it. Neural networks known as ‘central pattern generators’ in the spinal cord control this kind of activity. These spinal neural centers do not function correctly in a person with one-sided paralysis, but pedaling with Profhand stimulates the spinal cord center and sends reflex signals from the normal leg to the paralyzed leg. Those commands call on primitive reflexes that develop when one is a baby.”

Profhand’s frame is made from the same ultra-light 7000 series aluminum alloy used to build Japan’s famed bullet trains. Sturdy and capable of tight turns, Profhand is well adapted for indoor use. Ordinary wheelchairs often require a helper to push them, and powered wheelchair riders tend to lose muscle strength, putting them one step closer to being bedridden. A person riding a Profhand wheelchair, on the other hand, increases strength in the legs and other parts of the body, making everyday activities easier.

At the Japan Venture Awards 2014 in February, TESS received the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Award for its technological prowess, high degree of product quality, and contribution to society. Suzuki also constantly receives words of gratitude from users, and stories are coming out about people who are barely able to move after years of rehabilitation that get on Profhand and later find themselves walking again. Collaborating with Tohoku University, Suzuki fields requests from users and continues to improve his product.

Profhand has earned the CE (Conformité Européene) mark in Europe and FDA approval in the United States, and is being sold in Asia, North America and Europe. Military veterans in the United States whose legs had given out due to old age started using it, and now they are reportedly traveling around the country. In Viet Nam, a rehabilitation model training project that uses Profhand as part of the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s grassroots technical cooperation scheme is up and running. Viet Nam does not have a national insurance system, and with too few physical therapists there rehabilitation is not an established service. Suzuki and his team are developing a rehabilitation model and training rehabilitation personnel for disabled people, many of whom have low incomes.

Suzuki is also currently promoting the use of Profhand in athletic activities such as field hockey, soccer and wheelchair dancing. Profhand sports organizations are also beginning to pop up in different regions in Japan. Perhaps the day will come when Profhand appears in Paralympic events. Along with the prospect of freedom of movement, those are big dreams for the disabled and their families.


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