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Aug. 25, 2011

Bones: An Innovative Orthopedic Cast Concept

by April Garbuz

Click to enlarge images

By April Garbuz, Wilton High School

'Bones' is an orthopedic cast with sensors for capturing muscle activity. Photo courtesy of Pedro Nakazato Andrade

I spoke with Pedro Nakazato Andrade who designed an orthopedic cast, called 'Bones', that integrates electromyographic sensors to constantly monitor the electrical activity produced by muscles around a bone fracture. The data is then sent to a health management Web site that can be accessed by both the patient wearing the cast and the doctor monitoring the patient. Here's what Andrade had to say about the concept:

What inspired you to create the 'Bones' cast?

The recovery process for patients with fractures is not only about restructuring the bone, but also the recovery process of the muscle strength lost during the time the limb was inactive. This project is user-centered driven, which means, first I started from user needs to then define the design direction. I was intrigued by how hard it is for orthopedic cast users to have mobility like they did before their fracture. In many cases, recovering muscles strength lost during the cast period can take over 6 months. This happens because patients start to exercise only after removing the cast. Orthopedists recommend exercising daily from the very first day with the cast exactly to avoid hypertrophy of the muscles around the fracture area. When the discussion is about how hard patients should exercise in their condition, doctors often say "up to their pain." This means, go closer to your limit. At this point, keeping the patient engaged during their treatment is extremely important and one of the bigger challenges of medicine. I wanted to motivate these patients to exercise during the cast period, give them updated information about their progress, and translate it into a language that they could understand and follow.

How does the cast work?

After a fracture, the patient goes to the hospital to be analyzed and receives the proper treatment by their doctor. There they are presented with 'Bones.' Each time the user turns on 'Bones', all the muscle activity around the fracture area is captured by electromyographic (EMG) sensors and stored in the cast device.

This information can be wirelessly synced to the user’s online profile where they have a history of their activities, a simulation of their full mobility, and [projected] recovery time according to their progression and exercise routine. On the website, 'Bones' analyses the user’s achievements and suggests specific exercises in order to keep the muscles active around the fractured area. Ultimately, using the 'Bones' cast will reduce the overall period of recovery time. All the information collected from the user goes to the community based website of 'Bones' where it is available to all online. Doctors, physiotherapists, and new users of Bones can consult and follow the patient's progress.

Check out a video outlining the use of the cast device:

'Bones' from Pedro Andrade on Vimeo.

Did you face any challenges in inventing this high tech cast?

Yes. One of the bigger challenges was find out how to transform the collected data into something that patients could see and understand. Before trying muscle sensors, I explored different materials. One of the first I tried was thermochromic ink. The idea is that when people start to exercise the temperature of their skin increases. When the ink reacts, the color of the cast would change and give real time feedback for the patient, telling them that their muscles are active in that area. The problem was that thermochromic ink easily reacted to the temperature of the environment so the information was not accurate.

How would you like to see the technologies of the cast applied?

The final product shouldn’t be just a medical device, but something that people are comfortable with. Imagine that you will have to use this object for 2, 3, or even more months. If it is a cast that users don’t feel comfortable using, they will lose interest in it. The cast shouldn’t be a strange object, but an extension of their body.

What are your future research goals?

Today, 'Bones' is a conceptual project. I want to bring it into reality. One of the biggest challenges in the future of this project is to make patients understand and explore the idea of sharing their recovery data with other users. The idea of exposing your medical data to an online community is an unexplored field that can be scaled to other areas of medicine.

________________________________

April Garbuz is a TalkingScience summer intern and a junior at Wilton High School. She loves science, debating, acting, and swimming. Ultimately, she'd like to be a research scientist.

 

About April Garbuz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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