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Electric Underwear Prevents Bedsores, Could Save Lives


While the idea of electric underwear may sound funny, the bedsores they were designed to prevent are no laughing matter. In fact, bedsores can be deadly for the millions of individuals who are bedridden or have limited mobility. Now a new product that has been shown to prevent bedsores could be on the way, and it also could save lives.

Smart-e-Pants could be headed to market

Anyone who is confined to bed or a wheelchair for a prolonged time is at risk for bedsores, also known as pressure sores or pressure ulcers. Unless these patients are turned or repositioned every few hours to relieve pressure on susceptible areas such as the hips, heels, spine, and shoulder blades, for example, bedsores can develop.

At the University of Calgary, researchers tackled this problem by developing a product dubbed "Smart-e-Pants," which is not yet available on the market. The pants look like boxer shorts and are wired to electrodes in the seat of the shorts that emit tiny electric currents six times an hour. The shocks are similar to static you might experience when walking across a carpet.

These little jolts of electricity stimulate the patient's muscles and can stop the development of bedsores, as demonstrated in a recent experiment. Specifically, the electric shocks reduce pressure on the tailbone and enhance delivery of nutrients and oxygen to the muscles.

In the study, 33 patients were outfitted with the electric underwear and received the mild electrical shocks for 10 seconds every 10 minutes, 12 hours per day, and four days per week for up to two months. None of the patients developed bedsores. The researchers tested the electric underwear on individuals with spinal injuries, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and hip fractures.

More about bedsores
Bedsores can develop for three main reasons: pressure, friction, and shear.

  • Pressure: Areas of the body most susceptible to bedsores caused by pressure are the tailbone, hips, heels, elbows, and shoulder blades, as these areas usually do not have much padding from fat or muscle
  • Friction: When patients are repositioned, often by care providers, there can be friction when areas of the body are dragged across the bed or other surface, which makes the skin susceptible to damage.
  • Shear: This type of skin damage can occur when the head of a hospital bed is elevated and a patient slides down, causing the skin over the spine or tailbone to stay in place while the vertebrae or tailbone move down. This repeated motion can lead to bedsores.

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Bedsores often develop quickly, progressing from a reddened area of skin to a deep infection within a few days. Once a bedsore has developed, it is usually difficult to treat, requires constant attention, and can take months or years to heal properly.

In addition to paralyzed individuals and bedridden patients in nursing homes or individuals being cared for at home who are unable to adequately reposition themselves, others who could benefit from the electric underwear include diabetics (because of poor circulation), and elderly, frail adults.

Bedsores develop when pressure and/or other skin trauma prevents blood from flowing to the muscles and delivering essential nutrients and oxygen. Bedsores that are not identified early or neglected can reach the bone, destroy the underlying muscle, and even cause death.

Why this study is important
According to the authors of the new study, 60,000 people in the United States die each year because of complications related to bedsores. Complications of bedsores can include sepsis (bacteria in the blood, which spreads throughout the body and can be deadly), cellulitis (infection of the connective tissue causing pain and swelling), bone and joint infections, and even cancer.

According to Professor Sean Dukelow, who presented the study results at the recent annual conference for the Society of Neuroscience in New Orleans, "I think awareness of pressure ulcers over the last five or 10 years has increased dramatically, as people realize what damage it can do to them." Hopefully, when the electric underwear is brought to market, it will help improve the lives of millions of people who might otherwise suffer with bedsores.

Mayo Clinic
Society of Neuroscience

Image: Wikimedia Commons