New Exosuit Built By Vanderbilt Engineers Could Change Work Habits of the Future

Vanderbilt exosuit back pain
Image: Vanderbilt University

A simple piece of tech developed by Vanderbilt engineers can help significantly reduce risk for back pain. The exosuit, which supports human movement and posture, can reduce fatigue by an average of 29–47 percent in lower back muscles, said the researchers. The functionality of the wearable device presents a promising new development for individuals who work in physically demanding fields and are at risk for back pain, including medical professionals and frontline workers, reports Marissa Shapiro at Vanderbilt Research News.

Back pain is on the rise. Experts say 60 to 80 percent of all adults will have low back pain in their lifetime. While the choice of treatment is complicated by the risk of opioid reliance for pain relief. Unfortunately, few solutions to prevent back pain have offered solid evidence of benefit.

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“Honestly, I am sick and tired of Bruce and Tony Stark being the only ones with performance-boosting super suits. And the idea here is I’m not fighting crime but I am fighting against the odds of developing low back pain,” says Karl Zelik, Ph.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“Our goal was to create a device that seamlessly integrates into the wearer’s life so they can wear it comfortably and only engage assistance when they need back relief during bending or lifting,” Zelik said.

Sketch of a man lifting a heavy box
Image: Vanderbilt University

The research, led by Zelik and recent Ph.D. graduate and primary author Erik Lamers, used surface electromyography techniques to measure changes in low back muscle fatigue in male and female participants, who were given physical tasks to perform both with and without the exosuit.

The wearable technology developed by Zelik’s team may conjure images of Iron Man’s suit, but it does not rely on motors or batteries. Instead, the low-profile, elastic exosuit applies assistive forces that cooperate with the low back extensor muscles, to relieve strain on the muscles and spine, and to help reduce injury risks.

This study showed that wearing the exosuit made holding a 35-pound weight (the average weight of a 4-year-old child) less tiring on the back than holding a 24-pound weight (the average weight of an 18-month-old baby) without the exosuit, the Vanderbilt report said.

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“These findings show how exosuits could provide valuable back relief to frontline and essential workers who have been taking a physical toll and supporting all of us throughout this pandemic. What we learned has the potential to shape the biomechanical and industrial standards of future wearable technologies,” said Zelik, who holds secondary appointments in biomedical engineering and in physical medicine and rehabilitation.

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Cathy Russey
Cathy Russey () is Online Editor at WT | Wearable Technologies and specialized in writing about the latest medical wearables and enabling technologies on the market. Cathy can be contacted at info(at)