While most of us are never without our smartphones, robots may soon become indispensable companions as well. It certainly seems so based on the recent experiments of researchers in Japan, who developed a wearable soft robot that can enhance patients’ experience while undergoing potentially unpleasant medical procedures, such as injections.
During the campaign to encourage vaccination against COVID-19, public health officials acknowledged that some people are simply afraid of needles, which has contributed to lower vaccination rates. While the issues of patient anxiety and pain during medical procedures have been well studied, there remains a need to test and implement solutions to help patients.
In a recently published study in Scientific Reports, researchers at the University of Tsukuba have developed a wearable soft robot that patients can use during treatments, in an effort to relieve their pain. With a moderate heat stimulus, the study participants who wore the robot experienced less pain than in the tests in which they did not wear the robot. “Our results suggest that the use of wearable soft robots can reduce anxiety and alleviate the perception of pain during medical treatments, including vaccinations,” said senior author Professor Fumihide Tanaka.
The soft fur-covered robot the scientists called Reliebo is designed to be attached to the participant’s hand; it contained small airbags that could inflate in response to hand movements. The researchers tested the effectiveness under different conditions based on clamping the participant’s hand while applying the painful thermal stimulus to the other arm not used to hold the robot. The researchers also measured the levels of oxytocin and cortisol (which are biomarkers for stress) from the patients’ saliva samples. In addition, subjective pain ratings were recorded using a rating scale and a survey test was conducted to evaluate the fear of injections and the psychological state of the patients before and after the experiments.
The researchers found that holding the robot helped ease the experience for patients regardless of the experimental conditions used, and speculated that the feelings of well-being that can be created by human touch may also have been activated by the robot. “It is known that interpersonal touch can reduce pain and anxiety, and we believe that this effect can be achieved even with non-living soft robots,” says Professor Tanaka. This can be useful when actual human contact is not feasible, such as during pandemics. Future versions of the robot could use controlled gaze or even augmented reality (AR) technologies to bond with the patient or distract him from pain perception in various situations.
This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Numbers 20K21800 and 22K19784.