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Fits like a glove: Stanford researchers develop medical applications for the Cooling Glove

Two years ago we wrote about the Cooling Glove, a device developed by Stanford biologists Craig Heller, PhD, and Dennis Grahn that helps athletes cool off and recover from active play more easily. At the time, the Cooling Glove was being used by a few sports teams, especially Stanford football, but others included the San Francisco 49ers and Manchester United. This past July, the glove was used by the Germans in the FIFA World Cup soccer competition, where they handily beat the heavily favored Brazilian team on their home turf.

The device fits over an athlete’s hand and is connected to a cooler and a vacuum source. Grahn and Heller's major insight was that the non-hairy skin of the palms, soles, and face are our major sites of heat dissipation. These areas have special blood vessels that can receive a large volume of blood and act as radiators, and the cooled blood from these surfaces flows back to the body's core.

When asked about other applications for the glove, Heller rattles off half a dozen that his lab is looking into in quick succession. One includes building a prototype for military working dogs. If they’re in an extremely hot climate, they pant more, which compromises their ability to sniff and find the dangerous compounds they are searching for. A canine cooling device that keeps their body temperature cool can help their sniffers work more efficiently.

The team is also working on several medical applications. One variant aims to maintain patient’s temperature during surgery. In this application, booties can be used leaving the arms free for IV lines and other instrumentation. The researchers are also looking at how the Cooling Glove can help menopausal women manage their hot flashes. Heller will soon begin enrolling volunteers for this trial. Another application involves using the glove in its heating mode to stave off migraine headaches before they become full-blown.

The U.S. Department of Energy is interested in how personal heating and cooling devices could be used as an alternative to heating and cooling whole buildings or rooms. The glove or bootie technology could mean a broader dead band on thermostats - the temperature range within which neither the cooling or heating system needs to be turned on - thus saving lots of energy.

Despite the recent success at the World Cup, Heller says the Cooling Glove has not been as popular with athletes as it could be. He notes that Avacore, the company marketing the glove commercially, is relatively small and doesn’t have a large enough budget to develop a more streamlined and user-friendly version or market it widely. He says that the device’s novelty also slows down acceptance:

If you have a concept that doesn’t fit existing ideas, breaking into a market is difficult. We had to overcome skepticism that we were selling snake oil. We overcome that with research, but getting basic research translated and disseminated for the user community is not easy.

One finding of the research is that use of the glove in a conditioning program produces impressive results – beyond what is produced by performance enhancing substances, such as steroids. In a study involving students, some freshmen women – not varsity athletes – were did more than 800 pushups in less than 45 minutes. Some professional athletes tripled their capacities in particular routines such as dips or pullups in 5-6 weeks.

Heller is optimistic about the Cooling Glove’s future in sports. “I expect it will be adopted eventually. If, for no other reason, safety - in sports and many other endeavors such as emergency response.”

Heller is a founder of Avacore, but no longer affiliated with the company.

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