Racy undewear can often be described as shocking, but rarely has that statement been literally true. Neuroscientists have designed a pair of pants that look a bit like cycling shorts and which send tiny electric currents to the wearer's bottom. The undergarment has the potential to prevent pressure ulcers in people with mobility problems. This could save the US an estimated $12 billion annually.
Pressure ulcers, more commonly known as bedsores, are open wounds that typically occur over bony areas of the body such as the coccyx and hips. They occur when pressure is applied to soft tissue, cutting off the blood supply to an area and so causing tissue death. They can be very painful and incredibly debilitating, and in the US alone about 60,000 people die each year from complications related to bedsores, such as infection or gangrene.
Bedsores are also estimated to be a direct cause of death in 7 to 8 per cent of people with paraplegia.
To help prevent these sores from occurring, Sean Dukelow at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and his colleagues, have developed Smart-E-Pants. They contain a built-in electronic system which delivers tiny electrical currents that stimulate the gluteal muscles in the buttocks for 10 seconds every 10 minutes for 12 hours a day.
"They recreate the fidgeting movement that a mobile person does naturally, relieving the pressure on bony areas," says Dukelow.
His team tested the underwear on 33 people who were immobile due to stroke, spinal injury or multiple sclerosis. Each volunteer wore the garment for four days a week over two months.
About 85 per cent of participants said that the garment was comfortable, and were able to sleep in them. They also said that they did not interfere with their daily routine.
Although this was not a test for efficacy, none of the participants developed bedsores over the testing period. Not getting bedsores in two months is unusual, says Dukelow, since they usually occur in immobile patients within days.
Next, the team hope to test the pants on a larger group of participants in intensive care, in order to test their efficacy in preventing the onset of bedsores after spinal injury.
Dukelow's study is presented this week at the Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.