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A Mechanical Engineer Invented Super-Powered Underwear That Might Actually Save The Day (From Back Pain)

“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.”

For most of Karl Zelik’s career, he hadn’t thought much about lower back pain. But that changed after the engineer and professor at Vanderbilt University became a dad. Suddenly, he had a toddler to play with, care for, chase after, and — most importantly for this story — lift up and down. Every day. Several times a day. And that can take a lot out of your back.

So Zelik designed something to help.

“I’m sick of Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne being the only ones with performance-boosting super-suits. We, the masses, want our own,” Zelik said in a press release. “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.”

His invention is a set of powered underwear, consisting of a vest and britches. The super undies are thin enough to hide under regular clothing and connected together using an “X” of fabric and elastic straps.

When the suit’s powered down, it moves just like regular clothing. Double tap the chest, though, and the suit activates. A tiny motor hidden in the vest thrums to life. Suddenly, the straps tense up. Next time the wearer bends or lifts something (like a box or toddler), the straps will absorb part of the mechanical strain, helping relieve the user’s lower back muscles and hopefully preventing back pain in the future.

“The key feature that distinguishes our approach from other wearable exoskeletons is that we are developing a device that can be concealed within or under clothing,” Zelik says. Similar back braces are usually pretty bulky and have to be worn on the outside of a person’s outfit, which makes them impractical for many jobs, such as nurses or surgeons (who could probably use a little back relief during a 12-hour shift). And there may be risks associated with overuse of such devices.

Back pain is a big deal. A wrenched muscle can turn even simple acts like walking or getting out of bed into an ordeal, sending people hobbling toward the medicine cabinet for painkillers or balms. As many as 80% of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and it’s one of the top reasons people have to skip work.

But Zelik’s invention is intended to prevent back pain — not treat it after it starts. Post-pain low-impact therapies like massage or yoga and more extreme interventions like surgery or prescription opioids aren’t always as helpful as you might think, as Vox covered recently. Overprescribing opioid painkillers might be one of the reasons we’re seeing an opioid epidemic in the first place.

Zelik and his team are continuing to improve their idea and are looking at possible patents. Meanwhile, other designers, engineers, and inventors are also exploring smart clothes — creating clothing that can do everything from monitor vital signs to connect to the internet.

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