Pain relief goes high tech at Sandia

Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are developing a cushion made up of 16 pre-formed inflatable bladders to relieve lower back pain.

A unique cushion designed to relieve the lower back pains of office workers, motorists and truck drivers – as well as quadriplegics and other people immobilised by reason of occupation or health – is under development at Sandia.

The already-patented device does not support the spine with pressure achieved by pressing the back against a preformed semi-rigid foam shape, which is the commonly used method.

Rather, in a process that resembles assisted power steering in a car, 16 pre-formed inflatable bladders aid muscles in the back intended to support the spine. There is no direct contact between chair back and spine.

‘A prototype enabled a man with degenerative joint disease, who couldn’t drive five hours at a stretch, to drive across the US and back,’ said Robert Felton, president of the Los Angeles medical company Numotech, which built the prototype and will market the finished device.

The electronic work at Sandia is intended to improve reliability of the prototype device. A second goal is to shrink its pumps, batteries, and circuits from an auxiliary box currently a foot square and four inches deep to one-third that size.

‘We want to integrate the electronics to make them flush with the chair back for office workers,’ said Sandia project leader Mark Vaughn.

Almost all back support systems attempt to relieve the intradisk pressure that is believed to be the source of lower back pain. The method commonly used is to superimpose order on the disks by means of semi-rigid moulding in a support backing.

The patented system under development is said to align the spine in a more comfortable way. The bladders can be inflated and deflated in groupings to achieve levels of support that vary with the needs of individuals.

The entire apparatus adjusts forward and back from the action of a single large bladder. A concave depression, achieved by side bladders, holds the back straight regardless of side movements of the vehicle or chair. A series of rocker switches adjusts inner contours to aid the back configuration of each individual.

The device, said Felton, ‘should significantly reduce the amount of drugs needed for pain management.’ The back cushion is expected to be on the market in little more than a year and should be available at a price in the range of $500-$700, he added.