Alberta invention relieves pressure
February 1, 2012
Custom undergarment prevents sores for spinal cord, stroke patients
Story by Colin Zak; Photo by Paul Rotzinger
When Stewart Midwinter broke his neck paragliding last summer, his whole life changed.
“I’ve had to relearn even basic things,” says the 56-year-old Calgarian, who has spent the last several months at Foothills Medical Centre. “I’ve also learned a lot about just how serious pressure sores can be for patients like me.”
His outlook now appears healthier thanks to a new, invented-in-Alberta device called Smart-e-Pants — custom undergarments that stimulate the backside muscles of people with spinal cord injuries or who have suffered a stroke.
After successful pilot testing with 20 participants at the Allen Gray Continuing Care Centre and the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, the device is now being piloted with five participants (including Midwinter) at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre.
“I’m thrilled to offer this option to patients at Foothills,” says Dr. Sean Dukelow, an Alberta Health Services stroke specialist with the Calgary Stroke Program. “Not only are pressure ulcers a serious health problem for our patients, the health care costs are considerable. We estimate that pressure ulcers cost the Canadian health care system $3.5 billion a year.”
Patients with reduced mobility — confined to a bed or wheelchair — often find themselves at risk for developing pressure ulcers, sores that often cause infections and can lead to life-threatening complications and death.
Smart-e-Pants look much like black bike shorts and fit like traditional underwear. The device delivers a mild electrical current to the wearer for 10 seconds every 10 minutes. This stimulates nerves and muscles, causing wearers to fidget in their chair, something most people do automatically and take for granted. Such movement brings fresh blood flow and oxygen to muscles, thus helping to prevent ulcers from forming.
Canadian studies show pressure ulcers cost between $15,000 and $72,000 to treat for each patient.
Smart-e-Pants were developed by Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions (AIHS) senior scholar Vivian Mushahwar, along with a team of experts from across Alberta — 16 principal investigators from neuroscience, nano- and micro-technology, biomedical and electrical engineering, as well as rehabilitation medicine.
With $5 million in funding from AIHS (including support from Alberta Health and Wellness), the team set its sights on “Sensory Motor Adaptive Rehabilitation Technology” and the AIHS Project SMART team was born — and invented Smart-e-Pants in just two-and-a-half years of working together.
Barbara Stoesz, director of adult rehabilitation for Alberta Health Services at Glenrose, has seen first-hand both the human costs and the health care costs of pressure ulcers.
“From the very start, we put our heads together on how best to test the new technology and how to implement the Smart-e-Pants research in the inpatient rehab phase of the patient's journey,” Stoesz says. “Vivian’s team has been an excellent partner in working with us to tackle this problem.”
Richard Stein, co-leader of the team and research professor in the Centre for Neuroscience at U of A, says he expects more patients will soon be able to use Smart-e-Pants.
“We have created Prev Biotech, a subsidiary of BioMotion Limited, in order to ready ourselves for producing Smart-e-Pants on a much wider scale,” Stein says. “We look forward to doing clinical studies in Alberta hospitals and elsewhere in Canada in the coming months and years.”
For patients like Midwinter, Smart-e-Pants bring added protection while sitting in a wheelchair for extended periods of time.
“I now face many challenges I hadn’t expected, and Smart-e-Pants give me some added peace of mind.”