Smart textile arm sleeve will be an effective and easy-to-use treatment for lymphedema patients

A ‘breakthrough’ smart textile arm sleeve will use electrical stimulation to reduce swelling and discomfort for patients with lymphedema.

Smart textile arm sleeve will be an effective and easy-to-use treatment for lymphedema patients
The researchers say current treatments can be intensive and hard for patients to manage themselves. Image Credit: Nottingham Trent University

Engineers at Nottingham Trent University are leading the project to create the garment, which will be an ‘effective, unobtrusive and easy-to-use’ treatment for patients in their own home.

Lymphedema is a chronic condition caused by fluid collecting in the soft tissue of the body, usually in the arms or legs, and there is no cure or proven pharmaceutical treatment.

It is estimated that up to 250 million people worldwide are currently suffering from different types of lymphedema, which if left untreated can cause patients long-term physical and psychological problems.

As well as affecting the quality of life of patients, this can also impact the NHS due to continued long-term primary care.

The new sleeve will be a highly-breathable fabric with seamlessly integrated and flexible printed circuits and electrodes.

It is being created in partnership with Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and with £450,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation.

The sleeve be adapted to fit different patients and would be durable and washable – will increase circulation of the lymphatic system, the network of channels and glands which works to remove excess fluid in the body.

The current recommended treatment combines specialist massage techniques and compressive bandaging, skin care and decongestive exercises, which the researchers say are intensive and means patients cannot manage it themselves. 

Compression garments which are worn every day are also commonly prescribed for patients to reduce swelling in the arm, but the researchers argue they can be inconvenient and a hindrance to patients and that their effectiveness can be variable.

A recent study found that 80% of participants felt that compression treatments interfered with their work and daily activities due to limited physical movement and that there was difficulty finding clothing that would fit over the compression.

Effectiveness also varied as it was impacted by washing and wear and as such patients regularly had to visit healthcare providers to monitor the garments, placing a further burden on them and the NHS.

There are two types of lymphedema – primary, which is caused by faulty genes, and secondary which is much more common and can be the result of issues such as cancer treatment, infection or injury.

The project will develop technology for the arm initially before being adapted for other parts of the body such as leg, chest, face and neck.

“In the UK alone more than 200,000 people are affected by lymphedema each year,” said researcher Dr Yang Wei, an expert in electronic textiles and electronic engineering in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

He said: “While there are some treatments to reduce pain and discomfort, their long-term effectiveness in treating the problem rather than addressing a symptom is uncertain. There is a need for an effective device in a convenient and wearable format that can be used by patients in the home to improve their quality of life.

“This will be a breakthrough smart medical textile garment which will be effective, unobtrusive and easy-to-use, stimulating lymph circulation and significantly improving the treatment of patients with lymphedema.”

The potential of this project could radically change the management of patients with Lymphedema and the use of compression in particular. It has personally been one of my own goals to see active compression and I am delighted to work with Dr Wei on this project.”

Professor Christine Moffatt CBE, Clinical Professor of Skin Integrity, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust

The project also involves industry partners Electra Polymers Ltd, Haddenham Healthcare Ltd and medi GmbH.

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