How to

21 August 2017

Wearable Technology Aiming to Say Bye-Bye to Back Pain

Img: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt 
Back pain is a problem that affects most adults sometime during their life, but up until now there’s been no major solution that hasn’t come with its own set of problems. Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, believes he’s found the remedy for that, though.

Alongside a team of engineers, he’s developed wearable technology which removes stress from the lower back when doing activities like bending down to pick up something heavy.

Made from a combination of nylon, Lycra and polyester, the device has two straps which run over the shoulders from the chest and down to the waist. These connect to rubber at the lower back which itself is attached to fabric sections around the thighs.

This wearable tech is incredibly slimline and sits nicely underneath clothes without being particularly noticeable or getting in the way. It doesn’t act any differently until a sensor on the chest is double-tapped and the straps become engaged – another double-tap disengages them. Alternatively, it can be done wirelessly over Bluetooth via an app designed by the engineering team.

Zelik tested the device’s capabilities through the use of eight subjects who lifted 25 and 55 pound weights while holding their position at 30°, 60° and 90°. The results showed that pressure was reduced on the lower back extensor muscles by 15% to 45% for every task, a significant change given how prevalent back pain is across the adult population.

This device has great potential when it comes to sportswear as the need to prevent injury is a major concern for many athletes. For certain sports where a lot of strain is put on people’s backs, it would prove to be effective for training thanks to the lack of bulk. Although more work would need to go into the product to make it suitable for a varied range of activities, the team are constantly focused on how to improve their device.

“The next idea is: can we use sensors embedded in the clothing to monitor stress on the lower back, and if it gets too high, can we automatically engage this smart clothing?” Zelik revealed. This would take away the need for people to physically activate the device because it does the job for them, benefitting those who may unwittingly be putting more pressure on their back than they might realise.

The team are hopeful that their device will be beneficial to many people, although stressed that it acts as more of a preventative measure than anything. For those who already have back pain, this technology is not the solution.

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. His love for cold weather sports and hiking in the winter gives him the enthusiasm for writing about keeping warm.