LENS Health and Wellness

Stimulating Treatment

Developing a Technology to Prevent Pressure Ulcers

Pressure ulcers can be extremely painful, hard to treat and sometimes fatal for people with limited mobility.

Now, a research team is tackling the problem from inside the body by developing a small, flexible device to go under the skin and stimulate the kind of muscle movement critical to warding off these ulcers—commonly called pressure sores—and other complications.

The device, called flexSTIM, could "eventually be suitable for virtually all patients with spinal cord injury and others with debilitating medical conditions," said team leader Kath Bogie, DPhil, an associate professor of orthopaedics and biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University.

The project is supported by a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. Collaborators include Christian Zorman, PhD (GRS '91, '94, physics), a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and interim associate dean of research at the Case School of Engineering; Douglas Shire, PhD, of the Cleveland VA Medical Center; and two engineers at Integrated Deposition Solutions, a company based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that develops flexible electronic printing products.

People at risk of pressure ulcers are encouraged to regularly shift their weight throughout the day and often are provided with specialized mattresses and cushions for their beds and wheelchairs. The flexSTIM device would provide intermittent stimulation to muscles—initially just those in the buttocks—mimicking regular weight-shifting to both improve muscle health and help prevent pressure ulcers and deep-tissue injuries.

Implantable stimulators already exist. The challenge is to create one sufficiently small and flexible for use in multiple muscle areas most prone to pressure ulcers. Eventually, the device Bogie's team is creating could be implanted in a minimally invasive procedure in outpatient clinics, which would make it more accessible to physicians and their patients.

While the device is still in the early stages of development, Bogie predicts it could be ready to test in humans in five years and potentially available more widely in 10 years.

—Janet Okoben