by Scott Irlbeck
Detecting Falls Before They Happen
Texas Tech and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center researchers develop an early warning system for fall-risk patients.
“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” This popular catchphrase from the late 1980s was from a campy television commercial for a medical alarm company aimed mostly at senior citizens. The commercial featured a re-enacted scenario in which an elderly woman fell while in her home but was able to summon help with the company’s electronic pendant worn around her neck. The device was one of only a few similar at that time.
Fast-forward 30 years, and there are now dozens of devices that are designed to summon help for elderly patients if they fall. Today some of these devices can activate automatically using acceleration sensors within the device in case the individual cannot manually activate it.
While these devices can help patients only after a fall, Texas Tech University (TTU) and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) researchers have created a device they hope will prevent a fall from ever happening. The prototype wireless sensor, which is small enough to be clipped to a belt, analyzes posture and gait, and sends an alert when there is a break in routine.
“There is not anything like this in the market out there right now,” said Dr. Donald Lie, Keh-Shew Lu Regents Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at TTU and an adjunct professor in the TTUHSC Department of Surgery.
Indeed, falling is a significant concern for a large percentage of the population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of three adults age 65 and older fall each year. In addition to the physical toll to the individual, the entire U.S. health care industry is impacted. In 2010, the direct medical cost of falls, adjusted for inflation, was $30 billion.
Dr. Steven Zupancic, an audiologist and assistant professor at TTUHSC School of Allied Health Sciences and adjunct assistant professor in the School of Medicine, says many of his patients complain of dizziness, which often leads to falling.
“It’s a huge problem,” Zupancic said. “One of the primary complaints from patients over 65 years old to their primary care physician is dizziness. It’s an increasing problem, and as the whole baby boomer generation gets older, it’s going to be more of an issue. Once a patient falls and gets admitted to the hospital, for example, there is an increase in likelihood of other problems that can arise for the patient, such as depression or anxiety, so the quality of life for the patient is reduced.”
The device contains an accelerometer and gyroscope that monitors the patient's movements.
Inside, the small prototype device contains an accelerometer and gyroscope monitoring how a patient walks, including side to side, forward and backward, as well as angular movement. This information is collected inside the device through a low-powered microprocessor made by Texas Instruments, along with their proprietary wireless transmitter system. Once collected, the information is sent from the device to a nearby computer producing real-time data.
“The patient wears the device on their back, and we can see what their gait pattern looks like,” Zupancic said. “Our ultimate goal is to develop some type of correlation between a known disorder and their gait pattern. We want to find some type of identification process so we can find people who are at risk of falling before they actually fall.”
Work is already underway on the collection of gait patterns in patients. Amanda Rodriquez, a doctor of audiology and philosophy doctoral student, is using the device on patients who have been diagnosed with a type of vestibular etiology.
“When the patient first comes in, we have them wear the device and do a balance evaluation,” Rodriquez said. “We want to compare and look at their gait and see if their gait is affected by their vestibular etiology at any point. Our hope is to get enough participants with the same etiology to detect a similar gait pattern between all of them. So when we look at a gait, we can say ‘oh that gait is characteristic of that kind of disorder.’ So even if the information may not tell me yes they’re going to fall or no they’re not going to fall, it’s going to tell me whether they are at a high risk of falling, and then I can put in recommendations.”
Doctors and Engineers Working in Collaboration
Patients wear the device on their backs during an initial balance evaluation to determine if their gait is affected by their vestibular etiology.
Researchers, doctors and engineers involved in the project all say Texas Tech is uniquely equipped for this type of collaboration that expands across disciplines. Texas Tech is one of the few schools in the nation with a comprehensive university and medical school on one campus.
“The Department of Engineering allows us to give our ideas to be implemented in the devices,” Zupancic said. “Without engineering, we wouldn’t be able to have the equipment to do these types of studies. On the other hand, engineering also relies on TTUHSC for some of the clinical work to see what their devices can actually do in a real scenario.”
Looking into the future, the group hopes to continue to develop the fall detector to become an implantable device. Tam Nguyen, an assistant professor in the TTUHSC Department of Surgery who is also involved in the research, believes this scenario could be a long-term goal. Nguyen currently works on cochlear implants, an implanted device to improve a patient’s hearing. He believes if the fall detector is perfected, it too could be implemented.
“I think most of the time why people fall is because what happens between balance sensors and their brain–the transmit time gets delayed,” Nguyen said. “Now if we could implement a sensor that does the same thing for us instead of waiting for the brain to fire off a nerve, we could implement an electrode to fire. It’s a lot quicker than to have to rely on the pathway all the way through the brain.”
This research has been approved by the TTUHSC Institutional Review Board, which is a committee designated to approve biomedical and behavioral research involving humans.
About the Whitacre College of Engineering
The Whitacre College of Engineering was one of the original academic areas when Texas Tech opened in 1925.
Today approximately 4,300 undergraduate and 725 graduate students pursue bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees offered through eight academic departments: civil and environmental, chemical, computer science, electrical and computer, engineering technology, industrial, mechanical and petroleum.
The college also offers two graduate certificate programs in petroleum and software engineering. View all degrees offered here.
Whitacre College of Engineering faculty, undergraduate and graduate students pursue basic and applied research that generate new knowledge and create technical solutions to society’s challenges, all in an environment that is committed to the individual student’s success. The college performs over $16 million in sponsored research each academic year. More about COE research.
Scott Irlbeck is Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.