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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 April 2006, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Homemade walking aid tackles MS
Geoff Adams-Spink
BBC News website age & disability correspondent

Photo of a man walking using the MuSmate
Wearers are able to walk further and faster using the MuSmate
A scientist whose wife has multiple sclerosis has developed a walking aid that has been shortlisted for an award.

Ken Armitage and wife Anne were trying to reach a pub on Dartmoor in time for a cream tea.

Mr Armitage improvised using his rucksack and a bungee strap, and the couple made it in time for tea.

His MuSmate walking aid was in line for a best new product award at a leading UK disability show, Naidex, at the NEC in Birmingham.

'Wonderful idea'

Mr Armitage is a geo-physicist and spends his time inventing things, though not usually disability-related products.

"Our need was to get to a pub that was serving the best cream teas on Dartmoor," Anne Armitage told the BBC News website.

We found a way of transferring energy from the strong muscles in the thigh and back to the ones that weren't working
Ken Armitage

"My husband had this wonderful idea - he took off his rucksack, put a bungee on my foot and I covered the last two kilometres and got there in time for tea."

The Armitages - together with a partner, Andrew Wynd - have formed a company to market the MuSmate to the public.

The device consists of a shoulder harness and an elasticated cord connected the wearer's shoe.

They are hoping it will help people with MS, cerebral palsy, those recovering from strokes and adrenoleukodystrophy, a condition similar to MS.

"My wife's walking range was down to about 50 or 60 metres," explained Mr Armitage.

"Aerobic fitness is really important. Just because one muscle group doesn't work, that's not to say the others can't do a lot more."

Mr Armitage uses the elastic cord to help people whose muscles won't allow them to lift their feet during that part of the walking cycle.

"We found a way of transferring energy from the strong muscles in the thigh and back to the ones that weren't working."

Confidence boost

The next stage in the product's development was to have it tested by a larger group of people. The South-West MS Society helped by coming up with around 20 volunteers.

Photo of Anne and Ken Armitage at Naidex
Anne and Ken Armitage's MuSmate was shortlisted for an award
According to Mr Armitage, over a 90 day period their walking speed increased by more than 100%.

The volunteers also reported - though this was not measured scientifically - that the distance that they were able to walk increased by up to 600%.

Wearers reported that walking without the MuSmate had also improved.

"All of my friends at the MS centre asked why I was getting better," said Mrs Armitage.

"I thought it was the red wine, but it wasn't. It was the red wine and the MuSmate together."

Mrs Armitage says that the device has significantly increased the amount she can walk as well as restoring her confidence.

"If my husband hadn't invented this I would probably be using a wheelchair by now."

Having gone through the testing process and having been approved as a medical aid, the MuSmate is now on sale to the public.

Testing time

One of those who tried it out at Naidex 2006 was Rob Woodfield from Leicester who is recovering from a stroke.

"What I want to do is to go hill walking," he said.

Mr Woodfield spent 10 minutes walking around the exhibition hall at the NEC and concluded, "this does seem to work".

"This has certainly given me the confidence to give it a much longer try," he said.

The MuSmate can be used on one or both legs and costs around 75 for a single harness and 125 for a double version.

The company estimates that there are two million people in Europe and North America who could make use of the invention.

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