Smart Garment Technology Aims to Prevent Back Pain

Video demonstrates how this new smart garment technology may help prevent back pain.

With wearable technology like fitness trackers, hearing aids, and smart watches, we can monitor our exercise habits, hear more clearly, and access our emails. And now, researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville have created a smart garment that could help prevent back pain.
Man wearing a smart undergarmentVanderbilt 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. Photography: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University.The technology consists of a sturdy shirt and shorts connected along the wearer’s back with elastic bands, according to Erik Lamers, a PhD student in mechanical engineering. The device, which is made of materials, including nylon canvas, Lycra, rubber, and polyester, is meant to be worn under clothes.

How it Works

The garment “takes advantage of natural leaning and lifting biomechanics,” says Karl Zelik, PhD, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, and physical medicine and rehabilitation.

“As a person leans forward or lifts an object, his/her trunk and hips flex [bend],” Zelik explains. “When wearing the smart undergarment, these motions stretch the embedded elastic bands, which run parallel to the spine. So instead of low back muscles and ligaments doing all the work, the elastic bands share the load, taking away some of the stress on the biological tissues.”

In tests, eight people wore the garment while leaning forward at various angles and lifting 25- and 55-pound weights. Investigators measured 15-45 percent less muscle activity in testers’ lower backs when they were wearing the garment.

The Pervasiveness of Back Pain

An estimated 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point, and back and spine problems are the major cause of disability for 7.6 million U.S. adults.

While back pain is widespread, its development isn’t all that well understood, notes co-investigator Aaron Yang, MD, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, medical director of outpatient services, and associate program director of the residency training program in physical medicine and rehabilitation. “There aren’t enough studies and literature looking at the specific causes of back pain,” he says. But “Whether you have a 45-pound weight in your hand, you’re standing statically, or you’re leaning forward, there’s some contraction of muscles, either along the back or the abdominal wall. This contraction and activation of muscles may lead to muscle fatigue,” and the garment can alleviate some of that.

Yang adds that the device could be particularly helpful for manual laborers (such as construction workers), who may need to lift and carry significant amounts of weight, and healthcare workers (especially surgeons, dentists, and nursing staff), who often stand or hunch for extended periods. These are the professions where back pain is most common, according to a large study of U.S. workers.

However, Yang warns, “This is a preventative-type device, not for people who already have back issues. And it’s not necessarily going to help you lift more weight.”

Help at the Touch of a Button

“The other cool thing about smart clothing is that you can engage and disengage it as needed,” Zelik points out. “In our current prototype, we can engage [turn on] the smart undergarment by either tapping on a certain part of the garment, a smartphone, or even by using our own muscle activity via electrode sensors in an armband. Once the task is complete, you can just tap it again to disengage [turn it off], and you are back to normal clothing.”

The intriguing research prompts just one question: When will the garment be available? “We are still in the investigational phase of the device, so it is very difficult to predict that,” Lamers says. But research, either on the effects of the device on muscle fatigue or on adjustments to the garment itself, will continue. In the meantime, visit our Back Pain Center for more information on coping with this common condition.

Updated on: 08/27/19
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