Scientists have designed electric underpants that shock the bottom to help prevent bedsores for people who are immobilized.
When a patient is stuck in the same position for too long, the skin compresses and blood circulation shuts down, leading to the formation of open wounds. Bedsores range from mild stage 1 lesions to life threatening, stage 4 ulcers that break the skin and eat through the muscle all the way down to the bone.
University of Calgary doctors tested underwear by placing two pads of electrodes on each cheek of 37 patients with spinal cord injury, then zapping them with a low current of stimulus for ten seconds every 10 minutes for 12 hours a day. The findings, presented at the Neuroscience 2012 conference in New Orleans this month, showed that none of the patients treated developed a sore during the month-long trial.
Dubbed Smart e-Pants, the undies work by delivering an intermittent shock to the patient's nether regions. The mild jolts of electricity mimic fidgeting movements and shift a patient into a slightly different position.
"This helps relieve pressure on the skin, increase blood flow and prevent the sores from forming," said Dr. Sean Dukelow, a physiatrist in the department of clinical neurosciences at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, and the paper's lead presenter at the conference.
Besides people with paralysis, the elderly are also at high risk for developing bedsores.
"Their circulation is compromised to begin with, they don't move around as much, and they have less body fat to pad them" said Dr. Albert Levy, an assistant professor of medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine who specializes in geriatric medicine.
For those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease or some other form of dementia, bedsores can be especially troublesome because these patients are often unable to take care of themselves properly or may lack the ability to articulate their pain and suffering to their caretakers, Levy said.
More than 2.5 million people develop bedsores at a cost of more than $10 billion each year, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Medicare statistics show that each pressure wound adds $43,180 to the cost of a hospital stay. And, the group Wrong Diagnosis reports, more than 34,000 people die from infection and other complications due to bedsores yearly.
Intensive nursing care, specialized wound dressings and surgical interventions account for the high costs of treatment, Dukelow explained. These prevention and treatment methods have been around since the 1940s and they are only partially effective: Bedsores continue to be a chronic problem plaguing hospitals and nursing homes. Dukelow said that by some estimates, nearly 30 percent of patients in many hospitals suffer from bedsores.
"Prevention is the best medicine – if we could prevent them we'd be much further ahead on lowering costs and saving lives," he said.
The Smart e-Pants were popular with both nurses and patients who participated in the trial. They only take a few minutes to put on and are easy to use. Dukelow said the next step is to do some larger studies to find out if the underwear can prevent bedsores in larger populations.