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Undergrad Engineers Design Improved Neck Stabilizer Brace

Team member Kelsey Horter wears the HeadCase (Rice University)

Team member Kelsey Horter wears the HeadCase (Rice University)

A team of mechanical and biomedical engineering students at Rice University in Houston, all undergraduates, have devised a prototype cervical collar that they say improves on neck braces now in use. The Rice team, called CivSAFE, is one of 10 finalists in the Innovation Showcase (iShow), a student engineering design competition held in Montreal in June, and sponsored by ASME, formerly the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Cervical collars that wrap around the neck aim to stabilize the neck and spine of trauma victims, with the current design in use since the Vietnam War. John Hipp, former director of the Spine Research Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, led a research team that published a study in the Journal of Trauma in 2010 showing abnormal separation between vertebrae due to cervical collars (paid subscription required). That research team, says Hipp, “confirmed through multiple experiments that conventional collars not only do not protect an injured cervical spine, but have clear potential to exacerbate cervical spine injuries.”

The CivSAFE team of three mechanical and three biomedical engineers, two of whom have first-hand experience as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), took on the design challenge for a better collar to fulfill requirements for their undergraduate degrees. They conducted their own tests of current collars that showed when a patient’s neck is injured, the collar can push the head away from the body.

Kelsey Horter, one of the EMTs on the team (pictured at top), noted that EMT trainees are taught, “You never just stabilize the part that’s injured, which is exactly what we think the current cervical collar does.” Horter adds, “We jumped on the premise that if we could stabilize the head and the torso right beneath the neck, then we could stabilize the neck.”

The CivSAFE team’s collar, called the HeadCase, uses a design guided by this principle. The device has two pieces applied on each side of the head and connect on the chest and back, with Velcro straps used to anchor the device to the body. “We placed the support on the side of the cheeks and the chest, and the top of the back,” says team member Sailesh Prabhu. “The result has been greater immobilization. Also, you’re immobilizing with contacts in places that won”t hurt the patient.”

The team designed HeadCase to be disposable, and estimate that once in production, it would have a unit price of $15.00. The team members say HeadCase stores flat and can be placed on a patient in 60 seconds. Quick application is one of the features of cervical collars now in use.

CivSAFE team members tested the ability of HeadCase to immobilize the necks and spines of potential trauma victims, measuring the range of motion afforded by the two devices, with student volunteers who wore conventional collars and the HeadCase. “One of the critical questions we’ve asked is, ‘When a patient is turned on his side, will his head flop to the ground?'” says team member Elias Hoban. “We’ve found ours just does a better job” compared to standard collars. All of the CivSAFE members spent time wearing both the original collar and their prototype, and found the new device to be more comfortable.

The HeadCase was developed in Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) that provides a space for undergraduate engineering students to design, prototype, and deploy solutions to real-world engineering challenges. The university has also filed a provisional patent for the device.

The following video tells more about and demonstrates the HeadCase.


Read more: U.S. Patent Awarded for Flexible Spinal Fusion Device

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