A new simulator that mimics the mechanical behaviour of the human torso could help improve the design of back braces.
Created by engineers at Lancaster University, it allows researchers to try out different back brace designs and configurations without needing to test them on people. This removes significant logistical and ethical issues, the university said.
The male torso-shaped mechanical test rig is used alongside computer simulation models. It 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 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.
Researchers can use the rig to collect data on the reduction of flexion, extension, lateral bending and torsion each design provides.
Although human testing of new back brace designs is still required, this would occur further down the design process.
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, indiscreet 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."
A paper on the research has been published in the journal Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering.