Innovator Reimagines Muscle Rehabilitation Therapy with Wearable Blood Flow Restriction Device

By Innovation Lab

With a new year comes annual resolutions, and more time working out usually tops many people’s lists. But are we getting the most out of the exercises we choose?

A new wearable muscle device could, one day, help us maximize both our workouts and gym time. Currently in a clinical evaluation phase with the Lab, the LiveBand takes a medical technology known as Blood Flow Restriction used in rehabilitation centers and re-imagines it for wider use from both continued rehabilitation treatment and ultimately to personal training.

BFR therapy uses modified blood-pressure cuffs attached to a leg or arm to partially occlude, or restrict, blood flow to that limb. That means for a very limited time, you’re depriving that limb’s muscles of full oxygen, which forces your muscles into working harder, while also preventing atrophy of the muscle. For rehabilitation use, most medical protocols recommend 50% occlusion.

“As you work out, you are experiencing that deep muscle burn, and eventually you’re triggering the mechanisms that build muscles. That starvation of oxygen prompts your muscle to say ‘OK, I need to increase in size and increase in endurance,’ ” says Dr. Eric Bowman, an orthopedic surgeon now at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

In a physical therapy environment, BFR allows patients to do more intense workouts without putting added stress on their joints, including tendons and ligaments, which is critical when undergoing rehabilitation from an injury or reconstruction. Research shows patients using BFR and lighter weights can get the same benefits without the risk that comes with pushing to lift heavier weights. Emerging studies further indicate gains in related muscle groups in addition to the main muscle restricted by a BFR cuff, Bowman noted, not to mention a cross-over effect when the mirror muscle in the opposite limb also improves.

Rethinking What Is Possible

Current medical-grade BFR models are cumbersome to use, starting with requiring patients to remain close to the device, which houses a pump attached by hoses to tighten a cuff on the limb. The unit’s size isn’t easily portable, and it often is installed on an IV pole, which restricts mobility because individuals can’t easily move around a circuit of therapy machines or between exercises. Those models also come with steep price tags, starting at about $5,000.

However, more importantly, BFR devices, as Bowman first observed during a visit to a therapy center while completing an orthopedic fellowship in California, improve patient outcomes. “I was blown away just with a couple of those workouts to see such a significant difference,” said Bowman, who also brings specialized insights as a sports medicine specialist who has worked with professional teams in Los Angeles and Nashville. A good portion of his practice focuses on shoulders, including rotator cuffs, elbows and ankles, and he regularly prescribes BFR as part of his patients’ recovery.

Bowman has designed the LiveBand – roughly the size and weight of a smartphone – to be strapped to an individual’s arm for operation and feature interchangeable bands to fit different limbs. Another unique element is LiveBand’s steady pressure stream, which automatically adapts, for example, as an individual flexes an arm and requires deeper pressure. When the arm is straightened, the pressure eases.

Putting Patient Safety First

To reduce personal risk, Bowman’s model also incorporates an automated cutoff that keeps users within therapeutic ranges of blood restriction and limits the time under occlusion. Individuals with coronary artery or heart disease would be advised to discuss with their doctor before using a BFR device such as LiveBad. As designed, an associated app will allow users to track their muscle recovery or development progress.

The initial prototype of LiveBand already has been tested with physical therapists and rehabilitation specialists around the country, and their input is driving tweaks in the next iteration. Bowman, who has published several research papers on the efficacy of BFR, continues to study the differences between patients who use and don’t use this therapy in their recovery.

Prepared with ideas on what he wanted in a portable device, Bowman reached out to the Innovation Lab, which he was aware of via a family member, to translate that vision into a device. He knew that taking the journey solo would come with significant time and investment, but the Lab “offers a very low risk way for innovators to have an idea evaluated and help bring it to reality,” he said. “The Lab has the product engineers and designers, and we worked together to share ideas and think through how this could be. Basically, we made a very rudimentary prototype, and we said: ‘this could work.’ We’ve had great questions. That opened the door to creativity that most people either don’t take the time to give or they don’t stop to think about how things could be made better.”

Part of a Comprehensive Innovation Process

Check back in for our next blog, where we talk about how our Innovation lab team worked with Dr. Bowman through the commercialization process. In the meantime, what great ideas do you have to improve how we rehabilitate and train our bodies? Visit our website to learn more and submit an idea.