A team of Rice University engineering students has designed a wearable electrical-stimulation and vibration-therapy system for people who experience foot pain and balance loss due to diabetic neuropathy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2022 estimates, more than 37 million people in the USA suffer from diabetes. About half of them will develop some form of diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that occurs most often in the legs and feet.
The sock designed by the StimuSock team features a smart insole that can deliver transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) to block pain signals to the brain and vibration therapy to provide haptic feedback to help with balance issues.
The team sought to combine the best aspects of existing therapies into a single, user-centred design. ‘Existing products or devices used to treat the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy are either pharmaceuticals or large at-home vibration devices users stand on,’ said Abby Dowse. ‘But none of them can both treat pain and improve balance, which our device aims to do by combining the TENS and the vibrational therapy in one wearable, portable, user-controllable and easy-to-use device.’
A lot of the team’s effort went into making the device as low-profile as possible. ‘The intent is for the patient to be able to wear the device for the whole day,’ said Yannie Guo. ‘Even when everything’s off and they don’t want the electrostimulation or haptics effect, they can still wear their device. You don’t want it to look like you’re wearing an ankle monitor.’
Patients use a smartphone app to control the type, intensity and duration of the desired therapeutic stimulus. The system also allows users to target a specific area of the foot. ‘We have three regions: one in the front of the insole, one in the middle and one at the back,’ said Sarah Park. ‘Our aim is to allow patients to be able to control both the amplitude of the vibration and the location where it’s delivered. Some patients might only want vibration at the front of their feet and some only at the back.’
Andrei Mitrofan said the team anticipates that the device’s final form will have sufficient battery life to provide the recommended maximum of four 30-minute sessions of TENS therapy per day and operate on standby the rest of the day.