Smart Underwear May Prevent Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

We have smartphones, smart cars, smart appliances and smart watches.

So perhaps it was inevitable that someone would invent smart underwear.

That’s exactly what a team of engineering students at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee have done, although their underwear isn’t designed to park your car, count your steps or check your blood pressure.

They’ve invented a bio-mechanical undergarment that helps prevent back pain by reducing stress on back muscles. The device consists of two sections, one for the chest and the other for the legs, which are connected by straps across the middle back, with natural rubber pieces at the lower back and glutes. It looks like something Ben Affleck might wear in the latest Batman movie.

"I'm sick of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne being the only ones with performance-boosting supersuits. We, the masses, want our own," jokes Erik Zelik, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt who led the design team.

"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."

Zelik experienced back pain after repeatedly lifting his toddler son, which got him thinking about wearable tech solutions. Low tech belts and braces designed to give support to tired back muscles have been on the market for years, but many are bulky, uncomfortable or just plain unattractive.

VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

"People are often trying to capitalize on a huge societal problem with devices that are unproven or unviable," said Dr. Aaron Yang, who specializes in nonsurgical treatment of the back and neck at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "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."

The new, as yet unnamed device is designed so that users engage it only when they need it – like moving furniture or lifting 2-year old toddlers. A simple double tap to the shirt tightens the straps. When the task is done, another double tap releases the straps so the user can sit down comfortably and go about their business.  

The device can also be controlled by an app, with users tapping their phones to engage the smart clothing wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Eight people tested the undergarment by leaning forward and lifting 25 and 55-pound weights at a series of different angles. The device reduced activity in their lower back extensor muscles by an average of 15 to 45 percent for each task.

"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.

The team unveiled the undergarment last week at the Congress of the International Society of Biomechanics in Brisbane, Australia, where it won a Young Investigator Award for engineering student Erik Lamers, one of the team members. The device makes its U.S. debut next week at the American Society of Biomechanics conference in Boulder, Colorado

The smart clothing project is funded by a Vanderbilt University Discovery Grant, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award.