Engineers from Vanderbilt University have devised a new ‘smart’ undergarment device that reduces back stress and may potentially help prevent low back pain.

The device is made of nylon canvas, Lycra, polyester and other materials and has two sections: one for the legs and one for the chest which are connected by straps. The clothing eases pressure on the back muscles by transferring some of the burden to the clothing’s elastic bands.

The smart clothing can be turned on and off by a double-tap to the wearer’s chest or through a dedicated app on a smartphone. Using motion capture, force plates and electromyography, the researchers tested the clothing in eight subjects who were tasked with leaning forward and lifting 25-pound and 55-pound weights while holding their position at 30, 60 and 90 degrees. When wearing the clothing, lower back activity was reduced by an average of 15 to 45%.

“This smart clothing concept is different [to previous similar clothing devices]”, said Dr. Aaron Yang, a co-investigator who specializes in nonsurgical treatment of the back and neck at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, “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.”

Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt and the principal investigator on the project, said that his next idea is to see if sensors can be embedded into the clothing to monitor back stress.

The smart clothing device will be demonstrated at the America Society of Biomechanics conference in Boulder, Colorado.

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