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Simple but ingenious invention takes the ouch out of injections

Using 3D printing and a bit of ingenuity, the "Comfortably Numb" team out of Rice University may have just made going to the doctor's office a little less painful.

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By transferring the cold from a chemical reaction through a metal plate to the skin, Rice University's "Comfortably Numb" team hopes to make injections sting a little less. Video screenshot by Michael Franco/CNET

For little kids, the elderly and anyone who'd rather eat cardboard than have an arm poked with a needle, getting an injection can be a painful and traumatic experience. A simple but ingenious solution by a team of students at Rice University might bring relief to the procedure by making the injection site "comfortably numb."

Actually, "Comfortably Numb" is the fitting name of a team of three freshmen at Rice who've worked to develop the needle-numbing device. It consists of a small 3D-printed cylinder with a metal plate at one end. Inside the single-use cylinder are two chambers. One holds water, the other ammonium nitrate -- the same combination of ingredients in those plastic instant ice packs that you crush to activate.

As with the ice packs, when the water and the ammonium nitrate mix with a twist of the cylinder, a chemical reaction occurs that instantly cools the solution. The cold from the solution is transferred to the metal plate at the end of the tube, which numbs the skin, making a subsequent injection less painful.

Why can't a doctor just use the plastic ice pack instead of Team Comfortably Numb's invention? The team explains that their device will eventually incorporate the needle into it, so doctors will be able to numb and inject in one procedure.

Because the team consists of first-year students who hadn't yet learned advanced material sciences, their solution was necessarily basic.

"Because we don't have these incredibly refined skills in certain areas...that meant that we had to think of very simple solutions," computer science major Greg Allison said in a statement. "Being limited in that way led to something that is very novel and innovative but at the same time simple and elegant."

Allison was joined by fellow classmates Andy Zhang (a bioengineering major) and Mike Hua (a mechanical engineering major) in creating the device. They say the invention can numb an injection site in 60 seconds, an improvement in speed over other numbing methods like creams and sprays.

The team is now applying for a provisional patent for the device. The students say that while their invention might have applications in fields outside the medical sciences -- like tattooing and piercing -- the focus is currently on standard injections.

"We are targeting anyone who has to get an injection, which is nearly everyone," Allison said. "But the device is especially applicable to people who are more susceptible to pain," he added.

Allison said that the device is also intended for use during procedures "where you have to get shots in more sensitive areas of the body, such as the face or the groin."