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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A new shear and plantar pressure sensor developed by Washington researchers could provide the basis for a "smart shoe" to help prevent people with diabetes from developing foot ulcers.
Dr. Wei-Chih Wang of the University of Washington in Seattle and colleagues report on their invention, which uses fiber-optic technology, in the May/June issue of the Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development.
While trauma to the foot after loss of sensation is now agreed to cause most foot ulcers in people with diabetes, the researchers note, the role of shear stress in the development of such ulcers is poorly understood.
The researchers developed their sensor, which consists of two arrays of optical fibers separated by elastomeric pads and oriented perpendicularly to one another, so it could be used inside a shoe and would be compatible with skin. Put simply, pressure on the fibers reduces light output. The sensor array detects shear by identifying when pressure points, originally located directly on top of one another, are displaced, with the degree of displacement indicating the amount of shear.
"We demonstrated that pressure and shear, in addition to magnitude and direction of an applied force, can cause noticeable changes in two-layer macrobend fiber-optic sensor arrays," the researchers conclude in their report.
"Difficulties lie in consistent and accurate manufacturing of this device," Dr. Wang told Reuters Health. "Cost and noise are also concerns since many custom-made optical components are needed. However, we have long since overcome this problem by utilizing a batch process similar to the integrated circuit fabrication for the sensor construction."
The technology could be used to construct a shoe that could monitor stress changes in the foot and feed the appropriate pressure and shear force to the area to relieve this stress, he added.
Other applications of the sensors, he said, include monitoring skin ulcers caused by prosthesis use and monitoring skin stresses to prevent injury in wheelchair users and bedridden patients.
"This type of diagnostic information has the potential to be used to drive actuators and smart materials to respond to varying pressures on an object, creating truly intelligent designs," Dr. Wang concluded.