Before I even made it to the machine, I had a significant break-through in my recovery. After some scar tissue massage, and further stretches and butt-clenching moves, I was able to flatten my knee to fully extend my leg. It may not sound like much, but this is something I’d been unable to do for two months.
Having mastered a more normal gait, I strutted my stuff on crutches towards the inconspicuous machine in the corner. I was asked to don some rubber pants, and pull them up as high as I could. Then, swinging myself over the lip of the plastic doughnut, I landed on the treadmill. The sides were then hoisted up to waist height, and my pants were zipped to the plastic seal, creating a vacuum from my waist down. I clipped myself to the machine to avoid any mishaps, having seen enough of those epic fail videos online.
Now comes the fun bit. The air chamber that housed my legs was filled with pressurized air to emulate low-gravity. As the machine calibrated my weight, I felt my legs drifting upwards, threatening to completely lift my trainers off the ground. As air pumped in, the seal around my waist ballooned out. My lower body felt inflated with helium and I grabbed the side bars to avoid floating away. It reminded me of the scene from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Charlie and his Grandpa Joe achieve dizzying heights by guzzling a fizzy drink.
So how does it work? Using NASA technology, the Alter G treadmill allows patients to regain mobility and their natural stride through a process called ‘under-weighting’. (As an aside, this was particularly appealing since discovering I’d gained 5kg since the surgery). The user can adjust the percentage of their body weight in order to walk comfortably, with the lowest setting being 20%.
To put this in perspective, the International Space Station which orbits the earth at around 200-250 miles high, has micro-gravity at around 90%*. This means that a person weighing in at 100lbs on earth weighs around 90lbs up there. These space-like conditions help those recuperating from knee and hip injuries, as it allows the patient to move without painful excessive weight-loading through the joint. In my case, putting shear force through my knee wouldn’t do my meniscal transplant any favours.
I began walking in anti-gravity and it felt surreal. I’ve dreamt about running since my operation, but this was the first time my body and brain were on the same team. My knee tired quickly and I sunk into the treadmill, but we simply decreased the weight which allowed me to continue. The physio observed my legs through the clear sides, and gave me pointers to walk normally. After some encouragement, I stopped swinging my foot round from my hip and got into a rhythm. I managed a whole 7mins of walking, and it felt like a giant leap forwards.
P.S. Welcome home Tim Peake!
Alter G promo video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qllqv8S_6QU
Picture credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/188025353168108468/