Wearable Tech Could Help Patients With Swallowing Disorders

We often take our most basic bodily functions for granted, which means that we hardly ever consider the idea of not being able to easily consume our food. But for millions of patients, the simple act of swallowing can be akin to a Herculean feat. And while some of these conditions can be treated with dietary changes, medications, physical therapy, or even surgery, there are still countless patients who have simply had to make do — in painful ways. But emerging technologies could change all that.

One out of every 12 children in the U.S. between the ages of three and 17 has a disorder related to voice, speech, or language, while over 9 million adults and 500,000 children in the U.S. experience acute swallowing disorders each year. Until now, there hasn’t necessarily been one way to successfully treat these conditions — and certainly not one that provides improved accessibility. Researchers at Purdue University, however, have recently developed a skin-mountable sensor sticker, which is attached to the neck area to monitor muscle activity and other physical movements associated with swallowing. This wearable device sends the data to doctors, who later analyze the information to discern where the disruption in the swallowing process might occur.

One swallow requires an individual to unconsciously coordinate of more than 30 pairs of muscles in the head and neck, along with six pairs of cranial nerves and circuitry within the brainstem and brain. The complex process can easily be interrupted and result in a swallowing disorder, but it can be tough to know exactly where that interruption occurs without help from technology.

“Our device is unique in that we specifically created it to work well with the small and intricate muscles associated with swallowing events,” explained researcher Chi Hwan Lee, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Purdue, in a statement. “The sensor sticker is stretchable and flexible to work well with the skin and curvilinear head and neck shape, while the connected unit has electronic chips and more rigid components.”

Not only is the device reliable and affordable, allowing people in rural areas to gain access to this technology, but the stickers are actually disposable after about 10 uses. Currently, U.S manufacturing is responsible for creating 18.2% of the world’s goods, and the Purdue research team intends to bring the wearable devices to market as soon as possible.

Of course, we’re used to relying on technology to solve a plethora of problems. Considering that a single optical fiber can carry more than 90,000 television channels, we think nothing of utilizing digital devices as a means of connecting us to the outside world. But for people with health considerations like these, technological developments can allow them to regain their humanity. This is a great addition to those who already utilize a service dog. After all, these canine companions start training for their role as early as 16 weeks old.

The research team has now completed pre-clinical trials of the device and is in the midst of conducting clinical trials. They’re also working with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization to obtain a patent for the technology. While the devices are not yet available, the team hopes it won’t be long before the wearable stickers can be made available to health clinics across the country.