SoCs Signal Relief For Vulnerable Vertebrae

Dec. 5, 2012
Sufferers of lower back pain may be intrigued by two SoC devices developed by Nordic Semiconductor. The SoCs have been designed into a nerve stimulation system called WiTouch.
Sufferers of lower back pain may be intrigued by two SoC devices developed by Nordic Semiconductor. The SoCs have been designed into a nerve stimulation system called WiTouch (see the figure), which comes by way of U.S. company Hollywog. The system implements a muscle pain-relief technology known as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
The WiTouch back pain relief system uses two Nordic nRF24LE1 2.4GHz SoCs, which provide the wireless connectivity.

TENS, recognised by medical professionals for decades, is a drug-free way of controlling pain by applying electrical stimulation to nerve and muscle fibres. The pain relief relies on either the gate-control theory, which suppresses the communication of pain in nerves by applying electrical frequencies above 80Hz, or a 10Hz low-frequency treatment that increases the discharge of the body’s endorphins and in turn reduces pain sensitivity in the central nervous system.

Ronald Melzack, psychology professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and Patrick Wall, a British neuroscientist, first presented the gate-control theory during the early 1960s. They suggested the spinal cord contains a neurological gate that either blocks pain signals or allows them to continue on to the brain. Unlike an actual gate, which opens and closes to allow things to pass through, the gate in the spinal cord operates by differentiating between the types of fibres carrying pain signals. Pain signals traveling via small nerve fibres are allowed to pass through, while signals sent by large nerve fibres are blocked.

Nordic’s pair of nRF24LE1 2.4GHz SoCs provide the wireless connectivity in the system. During operation, a Nordic nRF24LE1 located in the remote communicates with a sister nRF24LE1 in the WiTouch device. The device integrates an nRF24L01+ 2.4GHz RF transceiver core; enhanced 16MHz, 8bit 8051-compatible CPU; 1kB + 256B RAM; and 16kB embedded flash. It also incorporates a range of system peripherals, including a hardware advanced encryption standard accelerator, 16MHz and 32kHz RC oscillators, an ultra-low-power 32kHz crystal oscillator, a 12bit ADC and SPI, and two-wire and UART serial interfaces.

By using the nRF24LE1 in the remote-control unit, the remote is able to operate from a CR2032 coin cell battery for up to one year. Advanced interference avoidance techniques enable reliable communications between the WiTouch and its remote control, even in hostile 2.4GHz operating environments that include Bluetooth wireless technology and Wi-Fi emitters. The WiTouch pad can deliver over 150 30-minute treatments from a single pair of regular AAA batteries.

Cost To The Economy

Most of us at some point in our lives will experience back pain. Studies show that this medical condition does have a direct impact on a nation’s economy in terms of lost working hours.

In the United Kingdom, about 7.6 million working days were lost due to work-related back pain in 2011. And according to figures from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 25.9 million Americans lost an average of 7.2 days of work due to back pain in 2004—a total of 186.7 million work days lost.

I'm not saying that WiTouch technology is going to drastically reduce those figures, but it may make a contribution. It also could cut down on the number of back pain patients that need strong pain-killing medication. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention says the death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade. Furthermore, new findings show that more than 40 people in the U.S. die from overdoses involving narcotic pain relievers each and every day.

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