Page last updated at 23:17 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 00:17 UK

Son's injury led to intelligent crutch

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Simon White
Simon injured his cruciate ligament

When Professor Neil White's son, Simon, injured his leg playing football, doctors told him he needed an operation and crutches.

But during Simon's treatment for cruciate knee ligament damage, Prof White learned that many people given crutches are unable to use them properly and could even be doing themselves more damage.

So the Southampton University-based engineer set to work to design a more user-friendly crutch.

Prof White said: "Depending on the nature of the injury they are sometimes given crutches to prevent weight being applied to the leg and other times they are encouraged to put modest amounts of weight onto the leg in order to start the healing process.

"The real problems start once the patient gets home.

The real problems start once the patient gets home
Professor Neil White

"For instance if they are told to put 20% of their body weight on the crutch, but they have no-one to guide them about it, they can end up either putting no weight on the crutch or too much.

"We wanted to find a simple way of indicating to a patient how much weight they are actually putting on a crutch."

Crutch design

So Prof White, and colleague Dr Geoff Merrett, in conjunction with Georgina Hallett, a physiotherapist at Southampton General Hospital, designed an "intelligent" crutch with sensor technology to monitor whether it is being used correctly.

The sensors detect movement and grip and can be pre-set to measure the amount of weight being placed on the crutch.

How the crutch works
The crutch uses sensors

"It will then beep at you to say when you have got it right or wrong," said Prof White.

Ms Hallett said the new technology would definitely aid recovery.

"These crutches will make it much easier for patients to be taught how to use them properly, and how much weight they are allowed to put through their injured leg," said Ms Hallett,

"This will help them to get out of hospital faster and also reduce their risk of further damaging an already injured leg by putting too much or too little weight through it.

"To have some means of telling a patient how much weight they are putting down is great."

At the moment the crutch is suitable for monitoring and training patients in hospital environments.

But the researchers plan to develop a pair for use in patients' homes and hope it will be in commercial use within a year.

Hubert van Griensven, a physiotherapist at Southend University Hospitals NHS trust, agreed that using a device like the intelligent crutch would potentially make it easier for patients to use their crutches better.

"It sounds like a good idea, there is a problem with people not using their crutches properly," he said.

"If you say to someone you can put 50% of weight through your leg they are not sure whether they are doing that or not.

"To be able to give someone an indication as to whether they are in the right ball park is a good idea."

Former nurse Lynne Maher, Head of Innovation Practice at the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement, agreed that the device had the potential to make a big difference for patients.

She was particularly impressed that it had harnessed ideas from the Nintendo Wii games console.

"People are looking outside the normal constraints of the health service," she said.

"They are taking ideas from other industries, and combining them with things we know to make something even better."

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