Impacting up to 250 million people globally, lymphoedema is a chronic condition caused by fluid collecting in the soft tissue of the body, usually in the arms or legs with no cure or proven pharmaceutical treatment.
According to Nottingham Trent, the new sleeve will be a highly-breathable fabric with integrated and flexible printed circuits and electrodes. The circuit (100 micron thick, 5mm wide) will be designed with low power in mind, researchers said, and batteries will be used for patients' ease of use - however, the team said that exploring harvesting energy from body movement or temperature could be a future possibility.
It is being created in partnership with Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust and £450,000 in EPSRC funding.
The sleeve – durable and washable, and adapted to fit different patients - will increase circulation of the lymphatic system, which is the network of channels and glands that remove excess fluid in the body.
The current recommended treatment combines specialist massage and compressive bandaging, skin care and decongestive exercises, which the researchers said are intensive and impact patient autonomy.
Worn daily, compression garments are commonly prescribed for patients to reduce swelling in the arm, but the researchers said they can be inconvenient and a hindrance to patients and that their effectiveness can be variable.
A recent study found that 80 per cent 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.
The Nottingham team explained that the electronics will be made into a strip shape (electronic strip or e-strip) which is then encapsulated to protect from wearing and washing damages. Electrodes are printed directly onto textiles to form strong bonding, and the materials are waterproof. Researchers noted that different materials will be further explored to prolong washability.
The project will initially develop technology for the arm 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 lymphoedema 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.
“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,” he said in a statement. “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 lymphoedema.”
The team told The Engineer that early work has shown that a square wave with a maximum of 30mA at a low frequency works well with lymphatic system and has shown a 60 per cent improvement. However, the voltage applied is limited below 100V-rms for safety consideration.
Additional reporting by Melissa Bradshaw