Smart Clothing to Prevent Back Pain


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Ivanhoe Newswire) — Back pain is the number one cause of disability, and accounts for more than 264 million lost work days per year. Now researchers at Vanderbilt University have developed clothing to prevent back pain. They call it smart underwear.

Whether it’s lifting something or bending down, daily activities can put a strain on your back.

Karl Zelik, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University said, “If you look at the statistics, it’s something like 80 percent of all adults are going to develop back pain at some point of time.”

(Read Full Interview)

That is why Zelik and his engineering team are coming to the rescue with a piece of under clothing designed to protect people from stressors that can lead to back pain.

Zelik explained, “The basic idea is when you lift up an object, there’s some amount of load that’s transferred from the object down to your body through your spine and so it loads your low back.”

When someone wearing smart clothing leans forward or lifts something, they tap the device and some of the loading goes through the elastic band instead of the back muscles. The team has tested the device in a study where they had participants lean forward and lift 25-pound and 55-pound weights while holding their position at 30, 60 and 90 degrees. They found …

“That it can reduce the back muscle activity of the lower back muscles between 14 and 43 percent,” said Erik Lamers, a PhD student at CREATe Lab, Vanderbilt University.

The team’s hope is that this device can be the super suit that can limit back strain and pain.

Zelik said, “The clothing could almost be this kind of autonomous sidekick that helps you out when you need it and stays out of your way when it’s not needed.”

The team says they plan on having this version of the smart underwear available in the market within the next year. They have also been awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to create an upgraded version of the suit, where sensors would allow the smart clothing to predict when help is needed without engaging the device by tapping.

Contributors to this news report include: Milvionne Chery, Field Producer; Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Hayley Hudson, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer; Robert Walko, Editor.

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REPORT:       MB #4531

 BACKGROUND: About 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. In a large survey, more than a quarter of adults reported experiencing low back pain during the past three months. Men and women are equally affected by low back pain, which can range in intensity from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp sensation that leaves the person incapacitated. Pain can begin abruptly as a result of an accident or by lifting something heavy; or it can develop over time due to age-related changes of the spine. Sedentary lifestyles also can set the stage for low back pain, especially when a weekday routine of getting too little exercise is punctuated by strenuous weekend workout.


SMART UNDERWEAR: Karl Zelik, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University explained why he had the idea for smart clothing that would prevent back pain: “My son is three years old now and he insists on getting bigger and he’s frankly destroying my back from all the lifting and carrying that I have to do with him. I started thinking about whether there was some kind of wearing assistive technology that I could wear in my daily life which ideally would fit underneath my clothing so it was not visible.” Zelik described how the suit works, “Instead of all of the load going through your back muscles what you can do is you can run an elastic structure, basically a spring from your shoulders down along your backside over your butt and attach it to your thighs. And when you lean forward or when you lift something up some of the loading goes through the elastic band and it doesn’t go through your muscles. And that helps offload your low back.”

(Source: Karl Zelik, PhD)

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Vanderbilt University’s news website described the smart clothing this way: “the device consists of two fabric sections, made of nylon canvas, Lycra, polyester and other materials, for the chest and legs. The sections are connected by sturdy straps across the middle back, with natural rubber pieces at the lower back and glutes. The device is designed so that users engage it only when they need it. A simple double tap to the shirt engages the straps. When the task is done, another double tap releases the straps so the user can sit down, and the device feels and behaves like normal clothes. The device also can be controlled by an app that the team created, users tap their phones to engage the smart clothing wirelessly via Bluetooth.”



Heidi Hall, Media Relations


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Doctor Q and A

Read the entire Doctor Q&A for Karl Zelik, PhD, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Read the entire Q&A