Lower back support apparel can help prevent back injuries, especially for workers in jobs that require heavy lifting, but it doesn’t alleviate muscle fatigue which is a key source of back pain and an injury precursor. Vanderbilt University engineers have designed an exoskeleton that helps reduce muscle fatigue by taking on some of the load the body.

The “Low-Profile Elastic Exosuit” doesn’t use batteries or electronics, underscoring the fact that revolutionary technology often comes in a low-tech package. Its simple design places strong elastic bands in such a way that they replicate the efforts of the lumbar muscles of the low-back. The exosuit features a criss-cross vest design connected to wide thigh bands by large elastic bands that stretch and tighten as the body moves.

The engineering team conducted experiments that demonstrated an average reduction in lumbar fatigue of 29 to 47 percent. The same study found that wearing the exosuit made holding a 35 pound weight feel less tiring than holding a 24 pound weight without it.

These experiments also furthered the understanding of how the latissimus dorsi — muscles of the mid-back — contribute to low-back movements. While the “lats” aren’t typically involved in lumbar motion, the body recruits them for assistance when the lumbar muscles become fatigued. This information could inform future exosuit design and other back-related wearables.

Anyone who struggles with soreness in their lower back due to bending, lifting, or poor posture might benefit from the assistance provided by the exosuit. In addition to manufacturing and warehouse employees, it could effectively support frontline and essential workers who experience fatigue due to the heightened need for their services during the coronavirus pandemic.

In September, the Vanderbilt team published their experiment results in the journal Nature: Scientific Reports. HeroWear is currently bringing the technology to the commercial market.