Fabric That Improves Form: Researchers Develop Specialized Garment To Monitor Joint Movement

May 14th, 2019
By: JobsTherapy.com Content Staff

Could a modest investment of around $50 help athletes and physical therapy patients improve their performance, recover faster and reduce their risk of injury? According to researchers at Dartmouth College, the answer appears to be yes.

The Dartmouth computer-science research team has produced a smart fabric that works with a micro-controller to monitor joint movement, helping athletes and PT patients correct their arm angles for optimal performance, according to News Medical, an online forum for scientific, medical and life sciences experts. The researchers’ study was published in the journal Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies and will be presented in September at the UbiComp 2019 conference in London.

Researchers made a specialized fabric elbow sleeve in two sizes using nylon, elastic fiber, and yarns covered with a thin layer of silver for conductivity, News Medical reported. They then fitted the sleeves with a micro-controller that can be removed easily to provide data on fabric resistance. The garment is lightweight, inexpensive, washable and comfortable to wear, making it ideal for PT patients and athletes of all ages and skill levels.

In the future, garments could be produced to monitor movement in joints such as knees and shoulders, and the micro-controller could be miniaturized to fit inside a button, according to News Medical. In addition, the garments could be tailored to the size of each patient’s arm to prevent wrinkling, which can affect the accuracy of the monitoring system.

“We wear fabrics all the time, so they provide the perfect medium for continuous sensing,” Xia Zhou, an associate professor of computer science at Dartmouth, told News Medical. “This study demonstrates the high level of performance and precision that can be acquired through basic, off-the-shelf fabrics.”

The flexible, motion-capture textile allows PT patients and athletes such as pitchers, quarterbacks, and tennis players to analyze their arm movement over time and ensure that they are using correct form, even when a coach or physical therapist isn’t there to provide feedback. The garments also can aid doctors in evaluating the effectiveness of medical and physical treatments for injured athletes and PT patients.

Technology already exists to monitor joint movement, but it typically requires rigid sensors or embedded electronics that only achieve low-resolution results, News Medical reported. The Dartmouth team focused on increasing the sensing capability and reliability of the smart textile using commonly available fabrics costing a total of about $50.

“Without a smart sensor, long-term monitoring would be impractical in coaching or therapy,” Qijia Shao, a doctoral student at Dartmouth who participated in the study, told News Medical. “This technology eliminates the need for around-the-clock professional observation. For less than the price of some sweatshirts, doctors and coaches can have access to a smart-fabric sensing system that could help them improve athletic performance or quality of life.”

The monitoring system uses stretchable fabrics to sense skin deformation and pressure fabrics to sense pressure during joint movement, News Medical reported. Using this information, the micro-controller can determine the joint’s rotational angle through changes in resistance.

In a test with 10 participants, the sleeve achieved a very low median error of 9.69 degrees in reconstructing elbow joint angles, News Medical said. That level of precision makes it a good choice for rehabilitation applications that limit the range of a patient’s joint movement, but its usefulness might extend even further.

“Testers even saw this for use in activities with high ranges of movement like yoga or gymnastics,” Zhou, who co-directs Dartmouth’s DartNets Lab, told News Medical. “All participants said they’d be willing to purchase such a system for the relatively inexpensive price tag.”

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