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April 25, 2002

Like assisted power steering

Unique back-support miniaturized at Sandia

Back support
Sandia project lead Mark Vaughn with a prototype of a unique back-support system. A close cousin of the microprocessor-controlled “self-squirming” wheelchair seat designed to alleviate potentially deadly pressure, the high-tech support is intended to reduce lower back pain. (photo by Randy Montoya)
Download 300dpi JPEG image, ‘back_support.jpg’, 944K (Media are welcome to download/publish this image with related news stories.)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A unique cushion designed to relieve the lower back pains of office workers, motorists and truck drivers — as well as quadriplegics and other people immobilized 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 — 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 by nature 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,” says 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,” says Sandia project lead Mark Vaughn.

The work is being done in conjunction with a Russian manufacturing corporation, Spektr-Conversion, and New York investment banking house M.R. Beal.

The device, says 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 says.

How it works
Almost all back support systems attempt to relieve the intradisk pressure 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 molding in a support backing.

The patented system under development aligns 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 is the second product Numotech has arranged for manufacture in Russia. A two-year design for manufacturability with Spektr-Conversion was signed a year ago for a wheelchair seat cushion designed to improve blood circulation for paraplegics and the formerly bedridden in hospitals.

Numotech cooperates with the Department of Energy through a program called the Russian Transition Initiative to achieve nonproliferation of nuclear arms. The project provides work for competent scientists who otherwise might be hired by unfriendly countries to make nuclear weapons. Spektr-Conversion consists of former workers from Russian nuclear lab Chelyabinsk-70.

Though national defense goals are involved, the projects are expected to produce commercially viable products. Profits are expected. Labor costs — reduced by a factor of 10 in the former USSR — are a factor, says Vaughn.

The back-support device is also the third medical assistive device on which Sandia has worked jointly with Numotech. The first, called the Numobag, uses a slight increase in oxygen concentration to heal potentially lethal sores faster than they would heal on their own, thus decreasing mortality and drains on medical resources. The process, called topical hyperbaric oxygen therapy, uses inexpensive plastic bags and an inexpensive metering system to contain and monitor concentrations of oxygen around the patientıs affected part. The Numobag is now being tested in Veterans Administration hospitals and has been FDA-approved. Jan. 1, 2003, is the target date for that product’s general market availability.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy under contract DE-AC04-94AL85000. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Media contact:
Neal Singer, nsinger@sandia.gov, (505) 845-7078

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