'Smart' clothing reduces back stress, pain

Engineers at Vanderbilt University have developed smart clothing, a wearable that utilizes biomechanics and technology to create a smart mechanical undergarment.

First presented at the American Society of Biomechanics conference in Boulder, Colorado, the smart clothing is made up of two fabric sections connected by straps across the middle of the back with rubber pieces at the lower back and glutes. The device can be used only when the user needs it by double tapping the shirt to engage the straps. Once the task is finished, a single tap on the shirt releases the straps. The wearable is also connected to a smartphone application via Bluetooth.

"I'm sick of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne being the only ones with performance-boosting supersuits. We, the masses, want our own," said Karl Zelik, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt and the principal investigator on the project. "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."

In a study evaluating the effectiveness of the device to lower back stress, researchers tested eight participants to lean forward and lift 25- and 55-pound weights while maintaining positions at 30, 60 and 90 degrees. Using motion capture, force plates and electromyography, the team saw the device reduced activity in the lower back by 15 to 45 percent in each task.

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