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Video: New Smart Underwear is Here to Fix Your Back Problems

01 August 2017

A team of engineers from Vanderbilt University has developed a device that combines the biomechanics and advanced wearable tech to create a smart, mechanized undergarment that helps prevent back stress.

Vanderbilt University engineering Ph.D. student Erik Lamers helped develop the design, garnering a Young Investigator Award last month at the Congress of the International Society of Biomechanics in Brisbane, Australia. (Vanderbilt University)Vanderbilt University engineering Ph.D. student Erik Lamers helped develop the design, garnering a Young Investigator Award last month at the Congress of the International Society of Biomechanics in Brisbane, Australia. (Vanderbilt University)

Over half of all adults will have lower back pain at some point in their lives, and this can become a costly health issue. Karl Zelik, the assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator on the project. He developed back pain from repeatedly picking up his toddler. This inspired him to start thinking about wearable tech solutions.

"I'm sick of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne being the only ones with performance-boosting super suits. We, the masses, want our own," Zelik said. "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."

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 straps across the middle back, and there are natural rubber pieces at the lower back and glutes.

The device is designed to engage only when users need it. If the user is experiencing back pain, he or she just double taps the shirt to engage the straps. When the task is done, a second double tap will release the straps so the user can sit, and the device feels and acts like a normal garment. The wearer can also control the device through a smart phone app by tapping the phone, engaging the technology via Bluetooth.

"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 this smart clothing?" Zelik said.

Dr. Aaron Yang specializes in the nonsurgical treatment of the back and neck at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He says that this technology is not for treating existing back pain. The device focuses on prevention by reducing stress and fatigue on the lower back. He has seen many different “solutions” for lower back pain and is typically suspicious of them. But this technology is different.

"People are often trying to capitalize on a huge societal problem with devices that are unproven or unviable," he said. "This smart clothing concept is different. I see a lot of health care 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."

This new smart underwear made its debut at the Congress of the International Society of Biomechanics in Brisbane, Australia in late July. It will make its U.S. debut at an American Society of Biomechanics conference in Boulder, Colorado on August 9-11.

To contact the author of this article, email Siobhan.Treacy@ieeeglobalspec.com


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