More than one in two adults (between 60 and 80 percent) suffer low back pain in their lifetimes and the condition is estimated to cost billions in healthcare and lost productivity every year. Now, an award-winning design for smart clothing to reduce back strain has been unveiled at the annual meeting of the American Society of Biomechanics in Australia. Described as a superhero-style undersuit, the garment is designed to relieve back strain by compressing muscles. Researchers at Vanderbilt University created the garment which consists of two sections of nylon canvas, Lycra, polyester and other materials for the chest and legs.
The developers proposed that this “Batman-style” ‘smart underpants could end the misery of back pain for millions of people. Experts for years have said many potential solutions for back pain are unproven, unworkable or just plain unattractive. Now a team of engineers from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee hope to change that with a design that combines the science of biomechanics and advances in wearable technology to create a smart, mechanized undergarment.
Lead researcher Karl Zelik, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, started exploring wearable technology solutions after suffering back pain himself from repeatedly lifting his young son. The device can be controlled by an app the team created – users tap their phones to engage the smart clothing wirelessly via Bluetooth. It can also be controlled by a light tap to the chest. It is designed so that users engage it only when they need it.
How Does It Work?
The user just double taps their shirt, or their smart phone, to engage the straps. When it is turned on, the elastic straps tighten so when the user completes a task, like lifting a heavy object, some of the pressure is diverted from the lower back to the straps. When the task is completed, another double tap releases the straps so the user can sit down. When not activated, the device feels and behaves like normal clothes.
Eight subjects tested the device leaning forward and lifting 25 lbs and 55 lbs weights while holding their position at 30, 60 and 90 degrees. Using motion analysis, force plates and electromyography, which records the electric activity of muscle tissue, the team showed the device reduced activity in the lower back muscles by an average of 15 to 45 percent for each task. The next idea is to find out if they can use sensors embedded in the clothing to monitor stress on the low back, and if it gets too high, have the garment automatically engage.
The study’s co-author Dr Aaron Yang said the focus of the new technology is not on treating those with existing back pain but on prevention by reducing stress and fatigue on the low back muscles. He said: ‘People try to capitalize on a huge societal problem with devices that are unproven or unviable.
‘This smart clothing concept is different. I see a lot of healthcare workers or other professionals with jobs that require standing or leaning for long periods. Smart clothing may help offload some of those forces and reduce muscle fatigue.’