Back injuries are a significant physical and economic burden, and treating them would be easier through real-time posture feedback.
Back problems are painful and costly. According to figures collated by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: 3.7 million Australians reported problems in 2014/15; between 70 and 90 per cent of people “will suffer from lower back pain in some form at some point in their lives”; and back injuries were the third-biggest cause of disease burden in 2011.
Despite the widespread issue, methods for treatment can lack rigour, and rehabilitation involves educated guesswork, said Mitch Finlayson. Finlayson is a biomedical scientist and engineer, simulation technologist at Royal Children’s Hospital, and co-founder of MyGolgi.
“Recovering from a back injury is more of an art form for whoever you get torehabilitate you: a physiotherapist or a chiropractor or osteopath or whoever’s looking after you,” Finlayson said.
Roughly a decade ago he suffered from a disc protrusion, which would heal and reappear with confusion around exactly why this was so.
“I was [working] in ICU at the time, and I’d look around and we monitored everything, every small physiological change, every bit of medication, the fluid that we were putting in and the fluid that was coming out; it’s a fine science,” he said.
“I found it frustrating that some aspects of science can be so precise and at other times it’s pseudoscience.”
Wanting to better measure and manage the causes of his pain, Finlayson decided to try and track his posture through a therapeutic tape-based concept. His system told him he was slouching after getting to a certain point of fatigue during runs. Based on these alerts, the length of these runs was trimmed, the slouching stopped, and the back pain went away.
So impressed was physiotherapist Sam Rosengarten with his patient’s progress that he joined the Finlayson brothers Mitch and Brenton (a mechanical engineer) and the team began MyGolgi to develop the idea.
Their solution involves a wearable set-up including tape and a Bluetooth-enabled microcontroller attached to this. Changes in posture are detected and alerts are sent to a user’s phone when there’s a potential problem. It shrinks the amount of time between potentially problematic physical behaviour and a warning (usually during a trip to a specialist) to cut it out.
“The microcontroller collects that data along with a number of other movement characteristic properties and sends this raw data to the phone, which detects what type of movements are occurring,” Finlayson said.
He added that he cannot go into specific details. To protect its IP, the company’s system has one provisional patent and a collection of trade secrets attached to it.
This system of real-time posture feedback has similarities to the role of the body’s “golgi tendon organs”, which give feedback on muscle tension.
“The concept is that we’re giving you an extra golgi… you’re placing it on your back and it’s giving you more information,” Finlayson said.
The company has been through several accelerator programs. In 2016 it was among qualifiers for the five-day Bridge to MassChallenge in Boston, won an Innovation Showcase Scholarship to Advamed conference in Minneapolis, and in 2017 it made the semi-finals of the Australian Technologies Competition.
A proof of concept and a number of benchtop trials have been successfully completed. When we speak to Finlayson, the company is in the middle of a funding round and preparing to start “full-scale product development” at the end of this. A launch is planned for early 2019 or late 2018.
The focus will initially be on treating back pain, which accounted for just over half of the $55 billion economic cost of musculoskeletal problems (in Australia alone) in 2012.
Finlayson hopes the invention will help make treatment of this huge problem into something other than an art.
Later on, the company says its concept is applicable for and will be used in tracking movement in “necks, shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees and ankles”.
“In between [capital raising and product release] will be a clinical trial, looking at proving that you can improve your back posture using our device,” Finlayson said of the path ahead.