Back pain prevention thanks to smart underwear

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  • The front and back of the smart underwear that prevents back pain. Image credit: Vanderbilt University
  • The smart underwear sits comfortably underneath clothing. Image credit: Vanderbilt University
  • The top part of the smart underwear. Image credit: Vanderbilt University
Date:2 August 2017 Author: Nikky Knijf Tags:, ,

It is estimated about 80 per cent of South Africans will suffer from neck or back pain during their lifetime. Neck and back pain are also one of the most common reasons employees take sick leave.

But what if there was a solution to prevent back pain even before it starts? Well, this clever bit of wearable technology might just be it. Engineers from Vanderbilt University have designed smart underwear to help ease stress placed on the lower back. This mechanised pair of underwear reduces activity in the lower back extensor muscles. This reduces stress placed on the lower back and prevents back pain.

Assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator on the project, Karl Zelik says: “I’m sick of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne being the only ones with performance-boosting super-suits. We, the masses, want our own. The difference is that I’m not fighting crime – I’m fighting the odds that I’ll strain my back this week trying to lift my 2-year-old.”

A look at the design

This engineers used common material for the device to make it light, comfortable and affordable. These include Lycra, nylon canvas, polyester and other materials. The sections of the device are connected with sturdy straps from the shoulders over the back. The top of the straps are fitted with elastic bands that help your back muscles manage the stress. Sturdy natural rubber pieces at the lower back and glutes.

Purely a preventative device, it was designed to work only when users need it. By tapping an area close to the collar bone, or using a smartphone app, the device is switched on. Another tap on the device or the app releases the straps and allows the user to sit down.

Tests show the smart underwear work

A test pool of eight subjects took the device for a spin so researchers could see how effective it is. Each subject would lean forward and pick up weights of 25 and 55-pounds while holding their position at 30, 06 and 90 degrees. With the help of electromyography, force plates and motion capture the team could demonstrate the reduced activity in lower back muscles. For each task the reduction was between 15 and 45 per cent.

“The next idea is: Can we use sensors embedded in the clothing to monitor stress on the low back, and if it gets too high, can we automatically engage the assistive structures to prevent excessive loading, since this could lead to fatigue, injury or pain?” Zelik said.

This project is funded by a Vanderbilt University Discovery Grant, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award. The patent has been filed and the team hopes to bring it to the consumer market. Development and experimental testing of the device is ongoing.