By: Sasha Klemawesch, MD
Electrically augmented wound healing may seem farfetched. I mean, most people were taught not to stick their finger in the light socket. So, exploiting electricity to help heal wounds may seem ludicrous. But when you think about it, doctors have been using electricity in various forms for years. Even back in ancient Greece, there is evidence of electric eels being used in foot basins to help with circulation and pain. Nowadays, Pacemakers and AICD’s (implantable defibrillators) are literally lifesaving for some cardiac patients. TENS units can provide some relief to some chronic pain patients that feels lifesaving. And ECT (shock therapy) can be life changing in patients with refractory depression.
But how does electricity help in wounds? Turns out, in several ways. A diverse array of studies exists reporting on a variety of forms of electric manipulation. Conclusions from those include: improved surgical results, reduced infection, improved immunity and circulation, shortened healing times, improved flap and graft survival, and novel options for addressing complex and recalcitrant chronic wounds.
Again, you ask, “but how”? Well, electric stimulation leads to increased fibroblast activity (fibroblasts are some of the building blocks of cells). It inhibits the growth of many bacteria, and lowered bacterial load in the wound helps mean less hurdles to wound closure. It increases perfusion to skin and veins, the latter due to increased vascular endothelial growth factor leading in turn to increased angiogenesis (blood flow). And it also causes increased white blood cell migration to the site, especially neutrophils which help in fighting infection and macrophages which can help clean up the debris of the old dead wound parts.
Knowing all this, researchers have created a self-powered electric bandage (all the aforementioned studies utilized externally sourced/applied electricity). Their invention is essentially a bandage containing tiny overlapping sheets of copper and other conductive materials as well as a built in nanogenerator. Everyday movements lead to the sides of the wound moving and thereby sparking tiny electrical impulses across the nodes situated on opposite wound borders. So far only tested on rats, the results are encouraging; wound closure dropped from 12 to 3 days on average. Human subject testing is on the horizon. In the meantime, I’d still stay away from hairdryers in the bathtub.