Back pain costs the economy millions a year and causes misery to sufferers. Here’s how AI and wearable technology can help

Lower back pain is the biggest cause of disability worldwide and is only going to increase due to prolific smartphone and tablet use. Back pain can be extraordinarily painful, yet is rarely life threatening, but can worsen other existing or underlying conditions.

And I should know. Just a few years back I had an accident and slipped a disc in my back. This also ending up also causing sciatica, which was triggered by irritation of nerve roots in the lumbar spine, leaving me unable to move around easily or even sit down for long. Not fun.

My back pain meant that it was difficult to focus on work, and I wasn’t able to commute to an office. The painkillers left me disorientated and I didn’t like walking alone outside. Overall I was able to recover relatively quickly through physio, pilates and ongoing management, so I was one of the lucky ones. But it’s not always that easy for everyone.

In 2018 it was revealed that back pain costs the UK one million years of lost productivity after GPs were accused of signing patients off work too easily. The research found that millions of people across the world receive the wrong care for lower back pain. Not great for the economy, employers, or, of course, the individuals suffering. So surely it’s logical that governments should invest time looking for solutions to this issue considering that so much is at stake? Well, it’s not exactly easy. The popular options are painkillers, a few physiotherapy sessions and in extreme cases surgery.  Back pain is a difficult condition to treat as it often spreads beyond just one point of discomfort. Complex treatment is needed to treat the condition and medical management is tough.

Meet your very own AI Coach

High-end bespoke treatments are normally only available via a specialist, making them inaccessible for the average person. But AI-based apps such as Kaia Health are springing up to offer an alternative to addictive painkillers or complicated surgical procedures, with tailored plans you can access via your smartphone.

The AI can track connective points on the body via smartphone cameras, or motion-tracking technology, used in sync with an on-screen three-dimensional image. From here, a selection of exercises are offered, using an AI coach. Mindfulness and psychological strategies are also available. The key thing is that patients have the ability to control their minds and bodies all the time, which is what’s really needed: 24/7 monitoring, certainly for the more serious cases.

Right now in the UK it’s almost impossible for healthcare providers to offer the ongoing support that’s so desperately needed. There are huge waiting list to see specialists and unfortunately many people can’t afford to jump the queue. The options are to suffer in silence or to try to manage back pain with sporadic physiotherapy sessions and painkillers. This is why for many patients the problem never really seems to go away.

Wearable technology as a solution

Indian-based healthtech and wellness startup Dipitr is also aiming to solve  this pernicious lifestyle problem. Meet Strack, a posture trainer and corrector wearable, that monitors wearers’ postures, alerting them each time they slouch. The team makes a big claim, with 70 percent of users apparently “reducing their hourly slouch count by more than 50 percent within the first 30 days of using Strack”. The wearable technology has also been presented to corporate clients, so they can help their employees look after their back health in environments where they sit all day.

AI and wearable technology are  just two examples of how new solutions to combat back pain are emerging to offer an alternative to this lifestyle condition that is predicted to get worse. It will be interesting to see whether there will be substantial long-term take up of these apps and how long it will take for consumers to take control of their health when it comes to lifestyle conditions like back pain.

AI and wearable technology can help this man's backpain. He's sitting in a doctor's surgery with a man's hand on his back
Backpain can be a major source of discomfort for millions of people each year

Tips on how to manage back pain

  • Try to move around – don’t run the risk of staying in bed and getting stuck in a position you can’t get out of. Even if you’re slow, a little bit of movement goes a long way.
  • Know when to stop – for those used to being active, it can be a big blow if full-on exercise isn’t possible. Light, gentle movements can do wonders  – just choose the right exercise, don’t overdo it and if it hurts stop.
  • Find the right physio – physios have different methods and will sometimes come up with different diagnoses. If in doubt, get a scan and try out different physios to see who best suits your requirements.
  • Don’t read scare stories – as with any condition, it’s tempting to go online and read stories about the many people who’ve been suffering for years with back pain with little improvement. It’s important to avoid this negativity and maintain a positive outlook.
  • Surgery should be a last resort – surgical procedures can go wrong – especially when operating on complex areas like backs. Also there’s little evidence that surgery improves back pain over the long-term in comparison to other pain management methods.




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