ENGINEER TURNED UH RESEARCHER FOCUSES
ON SPINAL CORD PATIENTS’ OLDEST PROBLEM
Toolbox of Imaging Software, Electrodes and Mats
to Combat Dangerous Pressure Ulcers
Many consider the human body to be the ultimate machine. But when its vital parts malfunction, catastrophic results can occur. Spinal cord injuries fall into that category, often leaving victims paralyzed, with little hope of recovery. A University of Houston researcher plans to put his expertise to work to try to help these patients.
Adam Thrasher, an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance who has a degree in mechanical engineering, is conducting research into an often overlooked aspect of spinal cord injuries—pressure ulcers.
“I am fascinated with the prospect of applying aspects of engineering to the challenges of spinal cord patients,” Thrasher said. “There are a lot of therapies for walking, but not many to address one of the oldest problems for spinal cord injuries, and that’s pressure ulcers.”
Pressure ulcers are sores that develop when feeling is lost and muscles atrophy, leaving bone and skin to chafe against mattresses and chairs. These sores are common among those who sit or lay in one place for long periods of time. If undetected, the pressure sores can become infected and complicate the patient’s rehabilitation. In some cases, an infected pressure ulcer can be fatal.
To that end, Thrasher is recruiting people with spinal cord injuries for a research study on pressure ulcers and their prevention. His research will use imaging software to measure the pressure exerted in the gluteus muscles when a spinal cord patient sits for prolonged periods. Participants will sit in a wheelchair lined with a special mat that measures where the pressure is the greatest. Able-bodied participants also are needed for baseline data of muscle activity.
The second phase of the study will involve self-adhesive gel electrodes placed on the lower back and gluteus muscles of patients with spinal cord injuries to stimulate muscle activity. The small “shocks” will build up muscles, making the patient more resistant to pressure ulcers, Thrasher said.
“At the present, the best measures for preventing pressure ulcers are specialized cushions that work with the patient’s mindfulness of leaning forward, reclining or lifting himself up to relieve strain,” he said. “There are also surgical solutions, but we believe similar results can be achieved safely with adhesive electrodes applied directly to the skin.”
Those interested in participating in the study must be at least 18 years old, have had a spinal cord injury for more than two years, have a doctor’s approval to participate and have proof of medical insurance. Data will be collected in the UH Laboratory of Integrated Physiology (LIP) over three visits, which will involve sitting experiments lasting up to two hours. Interested people can get more information by calling 713-743-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There are a lot of infections that result from pressure ulcers, a lot of healthcare dollars spent on treating pressure ulcers. It’s the problem that won’t go away,” Thrasher said. “This research can be used to develop products that alleviate pressure before it becomes problematic. You and I can cross our legs, move in our chair or sit up straight when we feel uncomfortable in our chairs. Spinal cord-injured patients can’t feel the build up of pressure.”
Thrasher will collaborate with other UH departments and The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research and Methodist Hospital.
For more information on the UH Department of Health and Human Performance, visit www.hhp.uh.edu/.
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