What have your undies done for you today? They may blanket your behind, pad your periods, or even filter your flatulence. But if Karl Zelik has anything to do with it, underwear of the future may also help prevent back pain.

Zelik is a biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt University who researches lower limb biomechanics and prosthetics. Before his current research, he says, “I’ve never really thought about spine biomechanics or lower back pain in any depth.”

But two years ago, his life changed; He became a father.

Since that eventful day, his son has grown increasingly heavy, and lifting him has taken a toll on Zelik’s back. So he turned this pain into productivity, and began investigating pain prevention using a concealable wearable gadget. Now after several years of research and hundreds of iterations, his so-called “smart underwear”—which he and the team have filed to patent—is making its U.S. debut this week at the American Society of Biomechanics conference in Boulder, Colorado.

Boxers or briefs? Boxer briefs? Commando? Men’s underwear is not something I give much thought to unless I’m stealing my husband’s to sleep in. But for couples who want to have a child, it can become a topic of discussion. Is your man’s choice of underwear important when it comes to sperm quality? What kind of underwear should men wear when trying to conceive?

Semen is a funny thing. According to The Journal of Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, spermatogenesis, or the generation of sperm inside the testes, is a fickle process heavily influenced by external factors. Things like weight, diet, alcohol and drug use, sleep, occupation, and yes, clothing, all help determine the strength and the motion of the sperm.

Concerning spermatogenesis and clothing, there is a problem called testicular heat stress that can adversely affect the motility, count, and shape of sperm in the semen, according to the Journal of Fertility and Sterility. Normally, a man’s bits are pretty good at self-regulating their heat, according to The Journal of Male Infertility, but just a little external pressure is needed to throw them all out of sorts, heat wise. (This must be why my husband whines so much when I set the thermostat up a few degrees when he’s looking the other way.) If their stones are so sensitive, what kind of underwear should men wear when trying to conceive?

Neck and back pain have become the “leading global cause of disability” in most countries. Up to 80 percent of people experience back pain at some point during their lifetime. And as injury rates soar, so has the use of back belts, but there is insufficient evidence these actually help prevent back injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.

Enter Zelik. He hopes to tackle the problem of back pain with a wearable, assistive device that can help with lifting, but doesn’t require a bulky Ironman-like exoskeleton. In brief, the smart underwear consists of a vest and a pair of bike-short-like bottoms, connected by a set of straps that criss-cross from shoulder to shorts along the back. Each of these straps has two sections: a stretchy upper elastic and a lower firm, rubber-like material.

The device contains a tiny motor, smaller than a tube of lip balm, housed in the front pocket of the vest. If you bend over while the device is in the “off” position, the stretchy elastic moves with your body. “It would just feel like normal clothing,” says Zelik. When it’s switched on, however, a pair of “clutches” prevents the elastic from stretching. When you bend over, the tough, rubber-like material attached to the thighs becomes taut, taking off some of the pressure that would otherwise be placed on your muscles.




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