Smart-e-Pants: The electrical underwear that prevents bedsores

Bedsores, or pressure ulcers as they are officially known, are a big problem for people who are bed-ridden or confined to wheelchairs. What’s worse is that they often cause serious infections, which can sometimes even be life-threatening.

Dr Vivian Mushahwar

Dr Vivian Mushahwar

To combat this problem, Dr Vivian Mushahwar and her Alberta Innovates Health Solutions (AIHS) Project SMART team came up with a revolutionary idea to prevent bedsores before they have a chance to develop.

Smart-e-Pants are custom undergarments that deliver an electrical current to stimulate the wearer’s muscles and replicate the process of fidgeting. We spoke to Dr Mushahwar about the story behind the invention to find out exactly how and why they work.

What first inspired you to create Smart-e-Pants?

What inspired me is my work with people with spinal-cord injuries. My focus has been on restoring mobility but the problem is that you always have those pressure ulcers that wont seem to go away. So we really thought about what causes pressure ulcers to develop, why are they so prevalent and why is it that people with intact nervous systems who are able bodied do not develop pressure ulcers, even though they sit in front of their computers for eight hours a day.

So we started asking these questions and the initial idea was that we fidget all the time. However, people who are unable to move on their own don’t feel the discomfort you develop if you stop fidgeting. For our first experiment, we sat able-bodied people on a chair and told them not to move. We watched them and they were in pain, they couldn’t do it. That’s because we have all this discomfort and the automatic response to this discomfort is what causes us to fidget or adjust our posture. We do this every six to nine minutes and that’s part of the reason why we do not develop pressure ulcers.

So what is this fidgeting doing? It’s redistributing the pressure and stopping the mechanical deformation in the muscle, which is the first pathway for pressure ulcers to develop. It’s also bringing new blood and oxygen to the muscles, which is involved in the second reason why pressure ulcers develop.

How do Smart-e-Pants work?

To understand how they work, it helps to have a preliminary understanding of how pressure ulcers develop.

Pressure ulcers usually develop where bone digs into muscle, such as the bones that we sit or lie on. They develop because the bone digs into the muscle and mechanically stretches it. This mechanical stretch on its own is capable of causing that muscle to start breaking down. That happens within 10 minutes so it’s pretty fast, but another thing that happens when the bone squeezes into the muscle is that it blocks the blood vessels that take oxygen to the muscle. So two things are happening; we’re stretching the muscle and blocking oxygen from reaching it. These two things combined cause massive pressure ulcers.

So how does Smart-e-Pants work? Well Smart-e-Pants causes the person to fidget or it causes the muscles to contract. When they contract, this distributes pressure away from the muscles and reduces the amount by which they are stretched. During the short period in which the muscle is contracting, you also bring blood and oxygen to the muscle.

Smart-e-Pants make the muscles contract for ten seconds, which is adequate to prevent stretching and bring oxygen to the muscle. Then it relaxes for ten minutes before doing it again for ten seconds. So every ten minutes, you have the brief contraction that pushes the pressure away, reduces the stretch and brings fresh oxygen to the muscle.

What stage is the Smart-e-Pants project in at the moment?

They are still in the development phase, as we do not yet have approval to sell the product. It’s labelled as a medical product and you have to go through a series of regulatory approvals before you are able to sell, which we are going through right now. However, we are continuing to use it as an investigational device, which allows us to do research using the product.

To discover more incredible new medical gadgets being used save lives, take a look at our life-saving technology feature in Issue 68 of How It Works magazine. Pick up a copy from all good retailers, or order it online from the ImagineShop. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device.

How It Works Issue 68