Torso simulator could lead to better back brace designs

A simulator that mimics the mechanical behaviour of the human torso could lead to innovative new designs of medical back supports.

back brace
The simulator mimics mechanical behaviour of the human torso (Image: Dr David Cheneler, Lancaster University)

Engineers have for the first time created a simulator mimicking the mechanical behaviour of the human torso – which could lead to innovations in the design of medical back supports.

Claimed to be the first of its kind, the simulator will let researchers test different back brace designs and configurations without needing to test them on people.

The simulator was developed by a team from Lancaster University’s Engineering Department and Dr Jane Martindale of the Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust and includes a male torso-shaped mechanical test rig, alongside computer simulation models. According to the university, it also includes a 3D-printed spine and rib cage, created using modified CAD models derived from CT scans of a human spine, and a torso with geometries and other properties that closely resemble and behave like human tissues.

The rig also allows for different spine configurations and deformities, such as scoliosis, to be modelled and tested with different back braces without causing discomfort to human testers.

Researchers can use the rig to collect data on the reduction of flexion, extension, lateral bending and torsion that each back brace design provides. Human testing of back braces will ultimately be required, but at a stage further down the design process to help optimise comfort and muscle engagement.

Dr David Cheneler, part of the Lancaster University team of Engineers that created the simulator, said: “Back braces have been used as both medical and retail products for decades, however existing designs can often be found to be heavy, overly rigid, indiscrete and uncomfortable.

“Our simulator enables new back braces to be developed that are optimised to constrain particular motions but allowing for other movements. It could also help with the design of braces and supports with targeted restriction of movement, which would be beneficial to some conditions and helping to reduce the risk of muscle loss.”

The researchers tested the rig with two novel back brace designs, an existing medical back brace and a weightlifting belt.

Team member Jon Harvey said: “This is an excellent example of how engineering research can have wide reaching impact, not only in industry, but also in the quality of life of a population.”

The research was funded by the Engineering Department at Lancaster University and has been outlined in a paper – ‘Experimental Platform to Facilitate Novel Back Brace Development for the Improvement of Spine Stability’ – which is published in Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering.

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