Exoskeleton suit provides smart solution to lower back pain
A smart robotic exoskeleton developed by an EU-funded project will help prevent lower back pain and provide relief to millions of people who suffer from the debilitating condition, one of the main causes of worker absenteeism worldwide.
© blackday #119379426, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
The SPEXOR projects exoskeleton suit is being tested by potential end-users, such as workers required to repeatedly lift heavy loads and people suffering from lower back pain undergoing rehabilitation.
Worn over the torso and upper legs, the exoskeleton supports the spine when needed, while sensors and machine-learning algorithms ensure it is unobtrusive at other times, such as while walking, sitting or climbing stairs.
The practical potential applications are everywhere that humans need to do work with a high risk of lower back pain, says project coordinator Jan Babič at the Joef Stefan Institute in Slovenia.
Most robotic assistive devices focus on augmenting the motion of legs or arms but neglect the spinal columns role. They are often heavy, bulky and uncomfortable to wear, restricting the users range of motion.
In contrast, SPEXORs lightweight passive exoskeleton is designed to mechanically reduce the load on the spine, while allowing the user to move freely and safely with reduced risk of lower back pain.
Sensors embedded in the suit determine the spinal load of the user in real time and provide a warning when the load on the spine has increased to a level that could lead to injury.
By approaching lower back pain prevention and treatment from an engineering perspective and modelling the human-exoskeleton interaction, we have devised robot-centred techniques that serve as the basis for the development of efficient wearable solutions, Babičsays.
The SPEXOR team is developing a final version of the exoskeleton that will include several compact motors to further enhance functionality, enabling the suit to act as an advanced rehabilitation or fitness device capable of strengthening the users muscles and preventing spinal disorders. It will also act as a diagnostic tool to predict physiological issues that could affect the wearers spine.
Reducing the socio-economic burden of back pain
The suit is set to be commercialised by German project partner Ottobock, a leading orthopaedic technologies firm with a strong track record of translating innovative ideas into commercial products. The SPEXOR consortium is also collaborating closely with other research initiatives, including the EU-funded AnDy project. AnDy is developing a suit with sensors to measure not only the load on the spine but the load on all joints of the human body.
Lower back pain is often described as a pandemic of the modern world and represents a considerable socio-economic burden, accounting for 15 % of all sick leave from work, Babičsays.
Studies show that the costs related to lower back pain in EU countries range from EUR 116 per person in Belgium to EUR 209 per person in Sweden.
Using a very conservative assumption that the SPEXOR exoskeleton technology can lower these costs by at least 5 %, the financial impact of SPEXOR would amount to approximately EUR 8 per person per year, says Babič. In a country like Germany with a population of 80 million people, the financial impact would be EUR 640 million annually. Across the whole EU, with a population of 500 million, the annual cost savings could reach EUR 4 billion.