Getting a leg up on physical therapy

Mary Ann Malizia believes there's a ready global market for her leg stretching device.

By GREGORY ZELLER // You’re doing your physical therapy all wrong.

That’s not a stretch, says Nassau BOCES physical therapist Mary Ann Malizia, who claims a common exercise performed daily by tens of thousands of athletes and patients – and by the PTs, trainers and chiropractors assisting them – is done incorrectly, bad news for anyone recovering from leg injuries or hoping to prevent them.

Most people stretching their hamstrings or calf muscles prior to exercising or as part of a therapeutic recovery program “cheat,” according to Malizia, meaning they position their knees or feet incorrectly or don’t hold the stretch for the required duration, leaving them vulnerable to new injuries and hampering their recuperation from old ones.

Observing this common error over her lengthy career inspired the physical therapist to invent the Progressive Leg Stretcher, a strap-on device that perfectly positions the leg for proper stretching and even includes a built-in timer. Doing business as Malizia Stretcher Inc., with a utility patent pending, the Rockville Centre inventor debuted her device in June at an American Physical Therapy Association conference in Maryland; now she’s looking to go global.

mary ann

Mary Ann Malizia (right) with a trade show colleague.

“I plan to sell this product to physical therapists, chiropractors and athletic trainers at every college, high school and hospital in America and overseas,” Malizia told Innovate LI. “This is going to be a global product.”

While there are other devices designed to help patients stretch their hamstrings and calf muscles, they “don’t help them do it correctly,” Malizia noted. Those other devices, for instance, allow users to bend their knees or point their toes in ways that bring comfort – but also prevent “the appropriate stretch on the muscle,” she said.

Users also tend to cut their stretches short, so her device has a built-in timer that ensures the stretch is held for the required amount of time.

“My device is uniquely positioned because it promotes the perfect stretch, it’s timed and it’s effortless,” Malizia added. “People can be on their computer or on their phones while they’re doing it.”

The results are quantifiable: The Progressive Leg Stretcher also has a built-in goniometer, which measures range of motion and helps patients and therapists track the lengthening muscle’s progress.

“You can measure the improved range of motion from one session to the next or one week to the next,” Malizia noted.

In addition to injury prevention, proper leg stretches promote recovery from a wide range of injuries and disorders, including recuperation from hip, knee, ankle and foot surgeries. Malizia said she’s especially keen on her device’s effectiveness in countering the symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome, and is researching the device’s ability to increase range of motion in lower extremities for patients with neurological conditions such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

“This will definitely help neurologically impaired patients,” she said.

The device is also designed to spare physical therapists themselves from injury. Malizia noted that PTs helping patients with their stretches usually wind up with “big, heavy legs resting on their shoulders, which kills [the therapist’s] neck and shoulders.”

“I also invented this to save my own neck and shoulders,” she said. “And it saves time. By using this, therapists can see more patients or provide more manual therapies while their patients are on the stretch.”

While it’s only been commercially available for about a week, the Progressive Leg Stretcher is already collecting fans. It was “very well received” at that APTA conference – Malizia said PTs were especially heartened by the thought of not having patient’s legs drilling into their collarbones – and there has been interest from Stony Brook University and the state’s economic development arm.

Malizia, who estimates she’s invested about $60,000 into design and development so far, is applying for a number of grants to help push the Progressive Leg Stretcher to market, including a Small Business Innovation and Research grant from the National Institutes of Health.

She has “a good chance” to recoup her investment, according to Brian Fried, founder of the Suffolk County Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club, where Malizia – a member since 2014 – presented her device this month.

“She’s already working with Stony Brook (University), and we’re lucky to have so many other great resources on Long Island in the medical and healthcare fields,” Fried noted. “The resources she needs to bring this to the manufacturing stage are very accessible on Long Island.”

Already taking orders, Malizia is looking to get to the manufacturing stage as soon as possible. She’s currently negotiating with multiple manufacturers and distributors, including a promising meeting this month with a New York-based distributor of healthcare products. She plans to have manufacturing and distribution deals in place by the fall.

From there, the inventor added, the Progressive Leg Stretcher will sell itself.

“This is a no-brainer for physical therapists,” Malizia said. “There’s no doubt it will work and there’s no doubt there’s a need. These stretches are performed all the time, they’re just not performed effectively.”