Treatment for head and neck cancers frequently involves surgical removal of lymph nodes from the neck. Known as neck dissection (ND), the surgery helps prevent the cancer from spreading through the lymphatic system. Post-surgery, ND patients may experience neck and shoulder pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility that can last for years. A robotic neck brace designed by researchers at Columbia University could help surgeons identify which patients are at risk for these symptoms.

Currently, doctors lack tools that provide a precise evaluation of neck mobility after ND procedures. That means at-risk patients frequently miss the opportunity for targeted physical therapy during the optimal post-operative recovery period.

To develop an effective evaluation tool, a team from Columbia Engineering based their design on a robotic neck brace they created in 2019 that analyzes neck mobility in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Working with researchers from Columbia’s Department of Otolaryngology, the engineers integrated inexpensive sensors within a brace constructed using 3D printing techniques.

While the ALS device analyzed only neck flexion and extension on a single plane, the ND brace can evaluate the full range of head and neck mobility. Using the new brace, the Columbia team analyzed the neck mobility of five patients before and after ND surgery. During routine post-operative visits, the device detected subtle changes in each patient’s neck mobility. A paper discussing the Columbia study was published in the journal Wearable Technologies in July.

Identifying those changes could give doctors better insight into which patients need specific rehabilitation interventions to avoid painful complications. That may prove to be a significant step toward providing personalized, post-operative rehabilitation: something that patient feedback has identified as lacking in many surgical settings.