University of Alberta researcher Vivian Mushahwar with Smart-e-Pants
We often speak of the luxury of sinking into bed, but if you really sank in, and couldn’t get back up, things would go badly for you. People immobilized by neurological injuries often develop nasty wounds called bedsores, which form when soft tissues, such as the buttocks, heels, and back of the head, get pressed against the surface of a bed or wheelchair so that the tissue’s oxygen supply is cut off and it starts to die. The resulting open wounds can penetrate all the way down to muscle and bone and are often infected. Bedsores, unfortunately, affect 25 percent of nursing home residents, 10 percent of hospital patients and 60 percent of quadriplegics.
A group of Canadian researchers has looked to underwear for a potential solution. They’ve developed underpants implanted with electrodes that periodically (and painlessly) shock the gluteal muscles. The muscles contract slightly, much the same way they do when people fidget unconsciously, and relieve the pressure on tissues to give them the gasp of oxygen that they need. The team calls the invention Smart-e-Pants.
In a feasibility study, 23 patients in Alberta hospitals wore Smart-e-Pants for a month, and the researchers, from the University of Alberta and University of Calgary, reported the study results at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans this week. Patients wore the underpants for 12 hours per day, four days per week, receiving a 10-second, painless shock every 10 minutes.
There was no control group wearing regular underpants, so there’s no way to claim that the invention prevented bedsores from occurring, but at the end of the trial period, none of the patients had developed them. Study leader Sean Dukelow told the Guardian that they would normally expect 10 to 30 percent of the patients to get bedsores. These results, then, are encouraging—expect a larger clinical trial soon.