Wearable medical technology provides valuable information and functionality for patients. The first wearable medical device was eyeglasses with convex lenses, invented in Italy during the 13th century. Their development for the visually impaired paved the way for other wearable devices to address medical problems—from hearing aids to insulin pumps. Modern commercial devices have expanded on a simple pedometer and altimeter technology to track physical activity in the context of promoting a healthy lifestyle as a form of primary prevention. And if we expand our scope to include minimally invasive implantable devices, then the potential for patient benefit is even greater. For example, cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators can sense, interpret, and intervene on pathological electrical activity in the heart to ultimately save lives.
The current wearable medical technology market includes devices like watches, available to the public, that have pulse oximetry, electrocardiography, and sleep tracking capabilities. But what makes modern devices truly special is their capacity to collect vast amounts of data. Wearable biosensors can transmit surveillance data and integrate real-time communication with physicians. This data gives physicians more insight into their patient’s disease course and increases the potential for more personalized care. It is no surprise then that the wearable medical device market is estimated to be worth almost 90 billion dollars by 20271.
For chronic pain, a wearable device likely to dominate the market is the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit—a non-pharmacological, therapeutic electrical stimulation device that addresses localized, neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain is defined as pain that is derived from injury or insult to the physical nerve, commonly seen in chronic conditions like peripheral vascular disease, direct trauma, or chronic nerve impingement from degenerative lumbar spine disease. Patients describe the sensation as burning or “pins and needles,” and it can be accompanied by an exaggerated or inappropriate response to minimally painful or non-painful stimuli. Neuropathic pain is estimated to have a prevalence ranging between 3 percent and 17 percent in the general population2.