‘Smart socks’ to help physiotherapists treat pain

Your socks will soon be able to communicate with your doctor. Source: Getty

Getting to a physiotherapist isn’t always easy, but exciting new technology is changing the way health professionals are treating patients struggling with pain and injury.

PhD candidate Deepti Aggarwal from the University of Melbourne has developed a pair of ‘smart socks’ that allow physiotherapists to better assess and treat patients from long distances.

The technology, called SoPhy, is embedded into the socks in three separate sensors. During video consultations, the patients perform exercises, with data and information being recorded through the socks in real time. Early trials have been promising in patients with chronic pain and has enabled physiotherapists to provide more accurate treatment. 

With the aid of video consultations, health professionals are able to provide people wearing the socks with information relating to weight distribution and range of movement during exercises such as steps, squats or jumps.

The wearable technology has been trialled on three patients and a physiotherapist at the Royal Children’s Hospital. Aggarwal said it’s good news for patients living in remote areas. 

“Australian physiotherapists are increasingly reliant on video consultations to treat rural and remote patients,” Aggarwal said. “This reduces the time and cost for patients travelling to the hospital. However, video consultations are less effective for physiotherapists, as they only provide a two-dimensional view of the patient.”

She told Starts at 60 the socks help people further because they take things beyond a 2D screen or a video call.

“Because physiotherapy is all about movement and when the physiotherapist sees a patient on a 2D screen, they can’t really do much,” she explained. “They can’t understand how the person is shifting the weight and everything, so that’s why I developed these socks. So therapists can have a better understanding of how the patient is doing during these consultations. 

To date, the socks have provided physiotherapists with valuable insights on patients undergoing lower limb rehabilitation, capturing information on weight distribution, range of foot movement, and foot orientation.

smart socks
What the new socks look like. Source: Scimex.org

Aggarwal explained that it took her around six months to develop the technology, noting that she initially wasn’t sure what the socks would look like. 

“I was working with the physiotherapists at the Royal Children’s Hospital and we refined the socks’ design and interface design in order to understand what is the best form of the socks, what data we need to capture when the patient is doing the movements and how we need to present this data to the physiotherapist,” she said. “Understanding all that, the form of the socks and the interface, it took me around six months.”

She added that physiotherapists have been keen to continue using the new technology, which she devleoped after her father hurt his ankle and was unable to seek treatment. 

The socks, which cost around $300 to make, aren’t currently available for purchase. There are hopes that companies will be willing to manufacture the socks when they see how helpful they can be.

“My hope is that in the near future, if the socks become available commercially, they could easily be part of the hospital setting,”Aggarwal said. “It could be that a hospital owns a couple of pairs of socks and whenever the patient needs them and they want to go for a couple of video consultations, the hospital could lend these socks to the patients. After they are done with the treatment, the patient could return the socks to the hospital. The cost of socks would be economic and part of the hospital chain itself.”

Still, Aggarwal said they weren’t an excuse for people to avoid traditional consultations with health professionals.

“Technologies like SoPhy are not a replacement for face-to-face consultations; rather they’re the next-best solution to support patients in critical situations such as those with severe pain and mobility issues,” she said. “Through SoPhy, we hope to inspire design thinking towards making novel systems for video consultations that sufficiently meet the needs of patients and clinicians.”

What do you think? Would you wear these socks? Do you find it hard to visit a doctor or health professional?

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