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How femtech is helping fibromyalgia patients

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Fibromyalgia is a poorly understood condition causing chronic, widespread pain in sufferers – the majority of which are women.

According to the NHS, the condition affects around seven times more women than men, and typically starts between the ages of 30 and 50, although it can affect any age.

It is not known what causes it, although theories suggest its onset often coincides with periods of stress, such as bereavement, injury or giving birth. There is also thought to be a hereditary aspect too.

The main symptom is generalised pain, which may be accompanied by extreme tiredness, muscle stiffness, difficulty sleeping and problems with memory and concentration, which is known as fibro-fog.

There is no cure for fibromyalgia, rather a number of ways of treating the symptoms, including anti-depressants, painkillers and lifestyle changes.

However, with advances in technology that focuses on female-specific conditions, known as femtech, could there be more solutions on the horizon?

Digital pain relief

Pain is often the most debilitating symptom of fibromyalgia, and, understandably, many women don’t want to be wholly reliant on painkillers, which can themselves bring unwanted side effects.

A number of developments in the femtech world have led to the creation of digital solutions, such as NeuroMetrix’s Quell device, which was last year granted breakthrough device designation by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat the symptoms of fibromyalgia in adults.

The device uses transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS) technology to offer symptomatic relief and management of chronic pain in the lower extremities.

Designed for over-the-counter use, Quell is a non-invasive, wearable device which is enabled by a tailored microchip that offers flexible, accurate nerve stimulation at increased power, providing targeted pain relief without the need for drugs.

Digital therapy

Another treatment that is often offered to fibromyalgia patients alongside medication is some form of talking therapy, but these can be inconvenient to access and attend.

Another technology that received Breakthrough Device Designation from the FDA last year is Swing Therapeutics’ programme of digital therapy.

It offers simple-to-use, daily digital therapeutic lessons and interactive exercises to help patients apply well-established principles to their own specific circumstances and symptoms, giving them the tools to manage their condition.

The self-guided program is designed to foster patients’ understanding and acceptance of their symptoms, while teaching powerful condition management skills via acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The program, which is currently being researched and trialled, also incorporates a tool to help users manage their symptom flare-ups – a common occurrence with fibromyalgia.

Symptom trackers

While not designed to cure or manage pain, symptom trackers can help fibromyalgia sufferers by noticing their triggers or any patterns to their flare-ups.

Taking a more careful note of how the condition affects them can help patients learn how best to manage the condition, minimising the pain and the disruption.

There are a variety of symptom tracking apps on the market, including Manage My Pain and PainScale, and all work in a broadly similar way.

While not specifically for fibromyalgia, PainScale, which was created with advice from doctors and chronic pain patients, tracks and organises all symptoms.

It also provides personalised pain management education, with more than 800 articles, health tips, exercises, and information about a whole range of programmes and treatment options. It can also be used to log and track pain so patients can identify triggers, helping them manage their condition.

Similarly, Manage My Pain helps patients keep detailed notes on their symptoms, which not only put them in more control of the condition, but can also help when seeking medical advice or treatment.

Conclusive proof

Because fibromyalgia is so widely misunderstood and under-researched, with vague if debilitating symptoms, there has traditionally been a tendency to dismiss it – especially bearing in mind long-standing issues with medical practitioners dismissing women’s pain.

However, in recent years, AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning have been used to prove the condition exists – and may have a neurological cause.

In 2017, researchers used machine learning to distinguish the brain scans of those with fibromyalgia from those without, and had 93 per cent accuracy.

In the study, MRI machines were used to capture images of the brain signals of 37 fibromyalgia patients and 35 healthy people as a control. All participants had pressure applied to their right thumbnail to cause “severe but tolerable pain,” explained the researchers in their paper, which was published in the journal Pain.

Those with fibromyalgia were seen on the MRI to experience more pain than the healthy controls, according to a neurological marker of physical pain, as well as showing different activity in the insula area of the brain, related to sensory integration, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is important for emotional regulation.

These different neurological responses created a brain signature for fibromyalgia patients, which a machine-learning algorithm was then able to use to predict which brain scans showed fibromyalgia and which did not.

While the research did not attempt to study the cause of the pain, for many fibromyalgia sufferers, simply knowing that it was real was cause for relief.

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New survey to ‘amplify’ marginalised voices in healthcare decision-making

UK charities enter partnership to address gender gap and advocate for inclusive healthcare policies

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The gynaecological health charity Cysters and Endometriosis UK have announced a partnership to amplify women’s voice in healthcare decision-making.

Despite progress in healthcare data collection, there remains a gap in representing the experiences of marginalised groups, particularly for those impacted by conditions and diseases like endometriosis.

Decision-makers in Parliament and the NHS often rely on data and statistics to inform policy and resource allocation. However, these datasets may not accurately reflect the experiences of marginalised communities.

A recent report from Endometriosis UK that gathered data on the experiences of being diagnosed with endometriosis in the UK found that whilst the ethnicity of respondents who identified as ‘white’ was proportionate to the data collected in the Census 2021, the remaining data was not illustrative of the ethnic diversity of the UK, with 15 per cent of respondents choosing not to respond to the ethnicity question.

To address this gap and advocate for inclusive healthcare policies, Cysters and Endometriosis UK are launching a new survey initiative aimed at amplifying the voices of marginalised groups in healthcare decision-making.

“We know that the current statistics are not inclusive of all communities, particularly marginalised groups,” said Neelam Heera-Shergill, founder of Cysters.

“By encouraging those from marginalised communities to share their experiences through this survey, they will be helping us to advocate for the changes that are needed, backed by evidence from their communities.

“In addition to delving into the diagnosis journey for people of colour and the unique barriers they encounter. We aim for this research and findings to pave the way for additional funded research on all menstrual-related conditions affecting people of colour.”

The survey seeks to gather insights into the experiences of marginalised communities, particularly concerning conditions and diseases like endometriosis.

Participants are encouraged to share their experiences openly and honestly, knowing that their responses will contribute to shaping more inclusive healthcare policies.

Sarah Harris, a researcher at Cysters, said: “We urge everyone to participate in this survey and share it far and wide. Together, we can ensure that all voices are considered in the conversation surrounding healthcare policy and resource allocation.”

The survey is anonymous and takes approximately 15 minutes to complete. To participate, visit Delayed Diagnosis of Endometriosis Among People of Colour in the UK Survey.

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Menstrual care start-up launches period equity initiative across college campuses

The initiative is hoped to facilitate access to period care and educate students on the use of more sustainable products

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Cherie Hoeger, founder and CEO of Saalt

The US menstrual care start-up Saalt has launched a new initiative aimed at addressing period poverty and environmental sustainability.

The Period Equity Initiative aims to reduce 100 million tampons from the environment while combatting period poverty.

Institutions, including Harvard University, Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, the University of Utah and the University of Nebraska, are already participating in the programme.

One in five female college students in the US have had to decide between buying period products and paying for other basic essentials like food and other bills according to a nationwide survey.

The initiative, a direct response to the demand for more units for student populations, underscores the issue of period poverty, which affects students across America, challenging the misconception that it is solely an “overseas problem”.

Saalt aims to make period care accessible and affordable through the subsidisation of reusable period products, such as cups, discs, and period underwear, to participating universities and their campus affiliates.

The project is hoped to not only facilitate access to period care, but also educate students on the use of more sustainable products, which are designed to be reused rather than discarded.

“Every day we hear from customers about how life-changing Saalt cups are for them,” said Cherie Hoeger, founder and CEO of Saalt.

“Creating period equity and managing the environmental impact created by disposables are pressing matters that demand urgent attention and innovative solutions.

“Through our Period Equity Initiative, we’re taking a proactive approach to tackle these challenges by leveraging our expertise and aligning with universities across America to make a big impact closer to home.”

The Period Equity Initiative, Hoeger added, furthers Saalt’s commitment to making period care more affordable, accessible and sustainable.

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Medical device start-up enters partnership with Bayer Switzerland

The collaboration is hoped to help “transform” gynaecological examinations

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The medical device start-up Aspivix has announced a partnership with Bayer Switzerland in an effort to “modernise” gynaecological procedures.

Aspivix has developed an innovative, suction-based cervical device designed as an alternative to the tenaculum, a surgical instrument commonly used in gynaecology for over a century.

The device aims to reduce pain and bleeding during transcervical procedures, including IUD placement.

Through the partnership with Bayer, Aspivix is now officially introducing Carevix in an effort to “transform” gynaecological examinations.

The collaboration is hoped to help bring the tool to market and offer women a more comfortable gynaecological experience, reducing the cases of pain associated with IUD procedures.

“We are excited to enter this partnership with Bayer (Schweiz) AG that truly emphasise the goal of empowering women to select the best contraceptive solution without worrying about potential pain and bleeding,” said Mathieu Horras, co-founder and CEO of Aspivix.

“The thorough research and clinical data behind Carevix guarantee a notable decrease in pain and bleeding, enhancing the experience of IUD adoption and placement, as well as various other gynaecological procedures for millions of women.”

The device, Horras added, provides an appealing alternative to the currently available tenaculum, filling an “important” unmet need.

Marco Gierten, Bayer Switzerland women’s healthcare lead, said: “As a globally trusted brand, Bayer remains committed to advancing solutions that provide significant benefits to patients.”

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