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Startup looks to help millions of Americans suffering from back pain

Posted at 10:03 AM, Oct 27, 2020

Brewing beer can be back breaking labor.

Every day, while working at Living Waters Brewing in East Nashville, Thomas Becker lifts heavy bags of grain and kegs of beer. He says the constant physical grind is taking a toll on his body.

“It hurts. It hurts a lot,” Becker said. “Sometimes I’ve had some days it’s hard just getting into the car after work.”

Now, relief might be found right next-door at a HeroWear, a startup that designed an exosuit to literally take weight off people’s backs.

“With a simple press of the button, you’re able to engage the assistance,” said Karl Zelik, Ph.D., an engineering professor at Vanderbilt University who is now the chief scientific officer of HeroWear, a new company with a mission of creating exoskeleton technology for everyone.

“We’re simply taking advantage of the laws of physics to help reduce some of the strain on your back,” Zelik said of his team’s back-assist exosuit, which is designed for people in physically demanding jobs.

The suit is like wearing a small backpack and some leg compression shorts, except when you bend down, it takes strain off a person’s back. There are versions designed for men and women.

“There are elastic bands that are located along your back,” Zelik said. “When you bend down, instead of all of the strain going through your back muscles, some of that strain gets offloaded and goes through these elastic bands instead.”

According to health experts, nearly 80% of Americans will suffer from back pain at some point during their lifetime. And while a new study by HeroWear shows this exosuit can cut down on back fatigue by up to 40%, spine specialists have some questions.

“It is quite a contraption,” said William J. Lauretti, DC, a professor of chiropractic clinical sciences at New York Chiropractic College. “So, I couldn’t imagine working a whole day wearing it.”

Lauretti says some of the alleged benefits of this exosuit could, in reality, be the result of a placebo effect.

“If you’re wearing something like that,” he said, “ I think you’re more likely to be a little more cautious about what you do just because you’re wearing this big thing.”

The exosuit costs $1,200. For people in physically demanding jobs like Becker, the benefits are real.

“It feels like when you bend down,” he said, “when you start to stand up, somebody is helping you stand up.”

Becker added you can’t put a price tag on pain relief.

“Definitely worth investing in,” he said. “Because this is me taking care of myself and taking care of my back for the future. Making sure I’m not going to be in pain long-term.”