How I beat the slump with a vibrating posture suit: The 6K 'Robocop' device that's solving back problems



00:08 GMT, 25 March 2012

Eifion Rees in the posture suit

Eifion Rees in the posture suit

There are straps made from wetsuit fabric fastened around my arms, torso and head. As I walk, pick up things or sit, sensors on my hands, spine and other joints vibrate – I feel a sensation similar to when a mobile phone goes off in your pocket.

I may look like Robocop’s weedier cousin but in fact I am wearing a ‘posture suit’ and it’s telling me I am moving in an incorrect way. Only when my posture is perfectly aligned does it give me peace.

The experience is rather unpleasant but researchers at Birmingham University hope the technology will be adopted by podiatrists, care homes and GPs in an effort to curb the 10billion-a-year loss to the UK economy caused by back injuries.

We are a nation of slouchers. We all
know we should be sitting up straight and pulling our shoulders back,
but somehow all the good advice often goes out of the window.

than 17 million Britons suffer lumbar spine (lower back) pain every
year. As someone who has suffered from it occasionally thanks to years
sitting in front of a computer, I went to find out whether the experts
could help.

The suit was
created by Stephen Wanless, of the university’s Department of Skills and
Stimulation, to help healthcare students move patients in less
back-breaking ways.

buzzing sensors work in the same way as those ridged white lines on a
hard shoulder of a motorway,’ says Wanless. ‘If drivers veer out of
their lane, the vibrations give them the message to change direction.
This suit teaches your muscles the same lesson – it’s a tool for
changing behaviour.’

The results are impressive: of those students who have used the suit, 96 per cent ‘remembered’ their lesson – ie had correct posture – eight weeks later, compared with only four per cent from a control group. The prototype cost 6,000 to develop but looks surprisingly simple. The sensors running up the spine to the back of the head are linked wirelessly to a computer programme that shows how the wearer’s posture deviates from the optimal ‘neutral’ position.

than 17 million Britons suffer lumbar spine (lower back) pain every

As soon as I am fastened in, the sensors begin buzzing. I am leaning too far forward, which means too much pressure is being put on my lower back. Research has shown that bending forward by more than 15 degrees can increase pressure within the lumbar spine tenfold.

Wanless instructs me to soften my knees slightly and take the weight of my body on my quadriceps, the group of muscles at the front of the thighs that ought to be the strongest in the body.

Many people mistakenly believe that keeping their legs straight and standing as tall as possible are the key to better posture. But bending the knees and straightening the spine can add inches to your height. For women it can also remove inches from the hips.

Eifion shows the correct way to lift an object in the posture suit

Eifion shows the correct way to lift an object in the posture suit

Wanless says: ‘Most of us have a tendency to bow our backs and hunch our shoulders, but this “Critical C” position puts people at risk of injury. The spine should actually be in the “Sloppy S” position, curving in from the pelvis and out to the base of the skull.’

It takes every ounce of my concentration to find a standing position that will stop the sensors buzzing. When I do find one, it’s difficult to maintain it and it hurts.

Wanless says: ‘Your body has become used to bad posture. Your muscles and ligaments have loosened and now it is more comfortable to stand that way. After six weeks it will feel more natural.’

Since my visit, I have been attempting to bend my knees slightly, to keep my back straight and to remember the mantra ‘nose over toes’.

However, as I am no longer wearing the suit, there are no alarms to warn me I’m slouching.

The real test will lie with another buzzer entirely: whether I need to use the one on the door of a back specialist.