Research: Spine-inspired Exosuit Could Help Relieve Low Back Pain.

Research: Spine-inspired Exosuit Could Help Relieve Low Back Pain.

Share this

As part of our groundbreaking research funded by the National Science Foundation, we are researching bio-inspired exosuits as a new, innovative approach to assist movement and stimulate the recovery process for people suffering from spine problems.

Low back pain is a common and costly condition in the U.S. With funding from the National Science Foundation Convergence Accelerator award, we’re developing bio-inspired exosuits that may help millions of people reduce the impact of low back pain and improve rehabilitation after spine surgery.

Project TANDEM, which stands for Tensegrity-based Assistive aND rehabilitation Exosuits to Complement Human BioMechanics, is not aiming for restrictive outerwear like Iron Man’s comic book super suit. Our first device, which we are developing in the TANDEM project is the Second Spine. It is inspired by the design of the human spine. 

The device resembles a backpack, with straps that cross over the patient’s shoulders and around their torso. It provides structural support while allowing fluid movement to participate in daily activities. Other devices we will develop in the future will be inspired by different body parts (e.g., shoulders, knees, etc.)

Almost 65 million people in the U.S. report recent back pain, and about 8% of all adults experience chronic lower back pain that limits their activities. Healthcare and other costs due to these conditions amount to more than $12 billion per year in this country and low back pain is the leading cause of lost productivity.

Helping workers in pain-prevalent industries.

The National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator awarded grants to 15 bio-inspired projects, one of which is TANDEM. We are currently in the first year-long phase of the project. In August, we will apply to be one of the five teams selected for the three-year Phase 2.

Phase 1 began with in-depth interviews with patients and providers to understand which solutions for low back pain could be impactful. We developed the first prototype of Second Spine, and we are currently testing it on healthy participants while performing lifting and leaning tasks in the lab. 

During Phase 2, we will include sensors and smart motors and test the prototypes in real life settings. At the conclusion of Phase 2, we hope to be ready to go to market with a new device that changes the way we think about back pain. 

We believe our device could greatly help U.S. workers in emergency services, manufacturing, agriculture, and healthcare—all fields that can result in significant numbers of workers with lower back pain. 

Our device uses a proven architectural concept called tensegrity to reduce lost working days due to low back pain, giving patients back time with their families, freer movement, and faster rehabilitation after back surgery. 

Tensegrity: A structure inspired by the spine.

The spine is a remarkable piece of engineering. It comprises rigid vertebrae separated by flexible discs and supported by supple ligaments and tendons. This combination of stiff and bendable elements balances the entire body while still allowing us to bend and twist. 

Engineers and architects were so taken by this design that they developed a whole new architectural concept called tensegrity (a combination of the words “tension” and “integrity”). Tensegrity has been used to create structures like buildings and bridges. Rigid portions of the structure are held and connected by a series of flexible cables under tension. The stiff portions appear to float but are in fact very stable. 

With TANDEM, led by colleagues from the University of Alabama, we’re bringing it back to the spine.

Our device is very light, very strong, and very flexible. Like the spine, it is composed of rigid sections and flexible elastic elements. This means it can move harmoniously with the body while reducing muscle activation at the spine, supporting movement while assisting muscles to relieve pain. Future versions could incorporate sensors and smart motors for even more impactful assistance. 

Multidisciplinary projects like TANDEM are one way we’re creating solutions to some of the biggest health challenges in the U.S. Taking our inspiration from the body itself, we’re opening new frontiers that could improve the quality of life for millions of people.

Want more information about the MedStar Health Research Institute?

Discover how we’re innovating for tomorrow.

Explore With Us

Stay up to date and subscribe to our blog

Latest blogs