Designing Wearables to Treat Chronic Pain and Illness

It’s impossible to avoid these days –  news about innovative and emerging wearable technology is everywhere. Fitbit, Apple Watch, and other wrist-worn devices remain the top contenders for fitness and consumer wearables, but the shift towards “invisible” and “textile tech” is beginning to take hold even in this arena (check out this Playertek harness) even with the struggle of smart textile commercialization. While this struggle appears to be predominantly related to mass adoption of consumer wearables, a majority of medical wearables were quick to adopt textiles – both smart and normal – as their base material of choice. Medical Garments are generally designed for a specific need, and have been historically designed for any reason from diagnostic purposes, to data collection, to specified treatment. However, designing a wearable for chronic pain or illness is a more challenging task. These wearables need to be multi-faceted and complex in purpose, but unobtrusive and simple to wear and use. Many people who suffer from chronic ailments rely on medication – and with the opioid crisis, safer and non-addictive alternatives to pain management are crucial.

Our in house design and prototype department have worked with companies ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, and have designed medical garments for short and long term use.

Here are some suggestions to take into account when designing medical garments that relieve chronic pain:

Design to treat and monitor. For most, inspiration comes from your surroundings; if you or a loved one are personally affected by chronic pain, you desperately will want to do anything you can to help. This pain is likely to effect more than the concentrated incident – as mentioned before, there is a need in the market for treatment alternatives to opioids, as well as effective chronic pain treatments. This is a source fueling most innovators developing wearables to treat pain in specific body parts – however, designing a versatile garment will be easier to market and use. For example: designing a vest that can treat different pain areas in the torso depending on where aches, a textile band that can wrap around both arm or leg (the innovative Quell Pain Relief is working with peripheral nerve stimulation to reduce pain, but is exclusively for calf use).

Knowing the different types of chronic pain as well as common treatment techniques (including but not limited to TENs and PEMF) will also help in the decision making process in the early design stages – different pain could require different tech, and your garment design needs to accommodate the tech related to treatment. Tip: sourcing smart textiles with conductive thread or ink can reduce the complexity of the garment if internal tubing or pockets are needed.

Making sure that sensors are properly placed to collect the most accurate data, as well as developing an easy to navigate interface will make the quantified self more accessible to those who rely on this data to determine varying treatments.

Treat long term, help immediately. As a wearable tech OEM, you are innovating chronic pain care. Testing different treatments with the goal of ultimately eliminating the pain or illness is not out of the question, but be sure to provide immediate therapy while testing treatment. This gives your wearable credibility and gives them a reason to continue use if the treatment takes extended duration of use. Designing with comfort in mind is a priority for any wearable, but especially in the chronic pain arena as most chronic pain wearables are worn for several hours at a time.

Put the wearer back in control. Providing different levels of therapy and treatment can help to give some fundamental control back to the wearer. People suffering from chronic pain require daily treatment and therapies. Developing these wearable technology offers options for management, treatment, data collection, and rehabilitation in the comfort of their own home.

(Our post Medical Vests: Why Wrist-Worn Wearables Won’t Work For Medical Data also includes some worthwhile design advice regarding medical garments.)

Designing wearable medical devices requires innovations, and designing for the niche of chronic pain management can bring other challenges to light. Making your device simple and effective are the two main goals, while providing both control and comfort to the wearer. Start designing your wearable today.

Additional Reading: 

Wearable Tech Emerging For Chronic Pain ReliefWearables Are Totally Failing the People Who Need Them Most, Wearable Technology And Digital Healthcare Strategies Should Shift Focus To Chronic Medical Illness