Belt with airbags that will break your fall

Daily Mail - - Good Health - By PAT HAGAN

ABELT that in­stantly in­flates pro­tec­tive ‘airbags’ dur­ing a fall could pre­vent hip frac­tures. The high-tech belt is packed with sen­sors that mon­i­tor move­ment con­stantly. When th­ese de­tect a sud­den fall to­wards the ground, they ac­ti­vate two airbags — one cov­er­ing each hip joint.

Within a frac­tion of a se­cond, the bags in­flate, act­ing as a cush­ion that re­duces the risk of a frac­ture when the hip bone strikes the ground.

Ini­tial lab­o­ra­tory tests on a hand­ful of vol­un­teers sug­gest the airbags re­duce the force of im­pact on hips dur­ing a fall by up to 90 per cent.

Called HipHope, the belt was re­cently ap­proved as a med­i­cal de­vice for use in the UK and Europe. It is ex­pected to be­come avail­able later this year, cost­ing just un­der £1,000 to buy or around £40 a month to rent.

Around 65,000 peo­ple in Eng­land, Wales and North­ern Ire­land suf­fer a hip frac­ture each year.

Most are frail or el­derly peo­ple who have some de­gree of os­teo­poro­sis, the age-re­lated con­di­tion that leaves bones brit­tle and af­fects more than three mil­lion peo­ple in the UK.

The NHS spends £4.6 mil­lion a day treat­ing frac­tures re­sult­ing from falls and hip frac­tures alone cost hos­pi­tals more than £1 bil­lion a year.

It is pos­si­ble to buy pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, such as padded shorts or un­der­wear, which have soft foam in the lin­ing to cush­ion the hips on im­pact — th­ese cost be­tween £30 and £60.

But a ma­jor re­view in 2014 by the Cochrane Li­brary — a highly re­garded or­gan­i­sa­tion that vets the ev­i­dence be­hind dif­fer­ent med­i­cal ther­a­pies and de­vices — con­cluded th­ese re­duce the risk of a frac­ture by only about 13 per cent.

Sci­en­tists be­hind the HipHope say it is a more tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced so­lu­tion that could be more pro­tec­tive as it mim­ics the suc­cess of airbags in cars and other ve­hi­cles.

The HipHope belt, which weighs about the same as a bag of sugar, re­sem­bles money belts worn by tourists to safe­guard cash. It has a clip at the front and two pouches on each side con­tain­ing de­flated airbags.

Sewn into the fab­ric of the belt is an ac­celerom­e­ter — a tiny de­vice that mea­sures the speed of move­ment and di­rec­tion — sim­i­lar to those used in ex­er­cise mon­i­tors such as Fit­Bit.

The ac­celerom­e­ter con­stantly checks which way the body is mov­ing and, cru­cially, the speed of that move­ment.

Also in­cor­po­rated into the belt are sev­eral sen­sors that use laser light to mea­sure how far the pelvis is from the ground. All the sen­sors feed data con­stantly to a mi­crochip in the belt. If there’s a sud­den fall to­wards the ground, the chip au­to­mat­i­cally sends an elec­tri­cal sig­nal to a tiny cylin­der in each of the two pouches.

This re­leases com­pressed air, which is stored in­side the AA bat­tery-sized cylin­der — in­flat­ing the airbags in just 50 mil­lisec­onds or roughly half the time it takes us to blink.

The chip is care­fully pro­grammed to ac­ti­vate the airbags only when the fall cov­ers a cer­tain dis­tance and at a cer­tain speed.

This means the bags do not keep in­flat­ing ev­ery time the user sits down quickly or goes sud­denly down in a lift.

THE mi­crochip can also wire­lessly send a mes­sage to a phone app on the per­son’s phone if they fall, which then texts or calls a pre­de­ter­mined num­ber for a fam­ily mem­ber or friend who has agreed to help in an emer­gency.

The HipHope belt will be tar­geted at the el­derly and in­firm judged to be at high risk of a fall.

Takir Khan, a con­sul­tant or­thopaedic sur­geon at the Royal Na­tional Or­thopaedic Hospi­tal in Stan­more, says it’s ‘ a very in­ter­est­ing idea’.

But he ques­tioned whether they would pre­vent all frac­tures, as many peo­ple with se­vere os­teo­poro­sis suf­fer a frac­ture first, then a fall — not the other way round.

‘If they have a weak thigh bone they may suf­fer a frac­ture while walk­ing and that’s why they fall.

‘ The airbags might pre­vent fur­ther damage — but not the ini­tial frac­ture.’

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