Electronic shorts that stimulate muscles in people with spinal cord injuries could help prevent painful and costly bedsores, researchers in Alberta say.

About 80 per cent of people who rely on wheelchairs will develop at least one pressure ulcer or bedsore in their lifetime. The injuries form when muscles don't move for long periods of time.

Each year in Canada, up to $3.5 billion is spent on treating pressure ulcers.

To tackle the problem, biologist Vivian Mushahwar of the University of Alberta started by looking at why able-bodied people don't develop the ulcers.

"Why do they sit in front of their computers for eight hours and not walk away with a pressure ulcer? And that's because they fidget all the time," Mushahwar said.

Mushahwar and her team of engineers, physicians, therapists and nurses invented a device called Smart-e-Pants to mimic that fidgeting motion.


Every 10 minutes, electrodes in the shorts send a shock to stimulate muscles and relieve skin pressure. (CBC)

The pants look like a pair of bicycle shorts with four electrodes in the back.

The undergarments sense when a person's skin is under pressure because of immobility. Every 10 minutes, the electrodes send a shock to help stimulate muscles, relieve pressure, circulate blood and prevent ulcers from forming.

For two years, the researchers have tested the devices in a small pilot project that showed promising results.

"You get 10 seconds of jolt and it was [a] little tingly," Gem Humbert said of wearing the underpants for five weeks. She's been in a wheelchair for just over a year.

The researchers hope to do a larger trial to show if Smart-e-Pants succeed in giving pressure ulcers a swift kick.

With files from CBC's Briar Stewart