A furry soft robot helps patients with uncomfortable medical procedures

A team of researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan has developed a fluffy soft robot that patients can interact with to reduce stress and fear when undergoing painful or uncomfortable medical procedures. For some patients, especially children, a fear of needles or uncomfortable and painful procedures can make such experiences particularly challenging and may mean they try to avoid treatment altogether. It is important to find ways to calm and reassure such patients to reduce their discomfort and enable them to undergo the necessary treatment. The robot has an inflatable actuator that can interact with and squeeze the patient’s hand, simulating human touch. The researchers found that the robot can act as a distraction and have a calming effect on patients.

Most of us recognize the need to experience some possible pain and discomfort during certain medical procedures, such as receiving an injection. However, for some patients, such procedures can be a source of significant stress and fear. Needles instill significant fear in many patients, with some disliking the experience of injections so much that they may avoid critical shots. This can have both personal and societal consequences. During the COVID-19 pandemic, such patients may be less likely to take advantage of protective vaccines, for example.

Strategies need to be developed to help such patients overcome their fear, or at least tolerate it so that they can receive treatment. These researchers in Japan have turned to soft robotics as an answer, hypothesizing that cute and cuddly robots (our words, not theirs) could provide a proxy for human touch and distraction during potentially painful or uncomfortable actions.

“It is well known that human touch can reduce pain and fear, and we believe that this effect can be achieved even with non-living soft robots,” said Fumihide Tanaka, a researcher involved in the study. “Our findings suggest that the use of wearable soft robots can reduce fear as well as pain perception during medical treatments, including vaccinations.”

The robot designed by the researchers is small, fluffy and handheld. It contains inflatable components that can act in response to someone squeezing it, and it can squeeze the patient’s hand back. So far, the researchers have tested the device with volunteers who experienced moderate heat stimulation, which caused some pain.

The researchers reported that volunteers who had access to the robot during the test reported less pain, and saliva tests for stress biomarkers showed a decrease in oxytocin and cortisol, suggesting that interacting with the robot has beneficial effects on pain and distress.

Study in Scientific reports: A soft wearable robot that can reduce the user’s pain and fear

About: University of Tsukuba

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