Oh, My Aching Back

At the University of Vermont, scientists work to pinpoint the source of your pain

Writer Richard Wolkomir, a chronic back pain sufferer himself, travels to the University of Vermont in search of causes and cures for this all-too-common affliction. The university's Vermont Back Research Center, it turns out, is a great place to learn about sore backs: it is the sole U.S. research center federally funded to probe out-of-whack lower backs. (Its primary funding agency is the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.)

At the Back Research Center, scientists do generate scientific papers, but they also put a great emphasis on applied research, attempting to find practical, hands-on ways to understand back pain — and alleviate the discomfort. In the developed world, 80 percent of us will get back pain.

To this end, the Back Research Center has developed all sorts of state-of-the-art investigative tools — including the Virtual Corset, an electronic gadget worn by a subject to monitor how the person's torso twists and bends throughout the day. Or the Lordosimeter, a stainless-steel strip worn to record data on how sitting posture affects pressure on the spine's disks.

The data accumulated from these devices and others will, researchers hope, revolutionize our understanding of the enormously complex system that is the human vertebrae. In the meantime, the center's scientists do offer a few back pointers: avoid heavy lifting, repeated bending and long periods of sitting still. Some of the best medicine for the back remains exercise: stretching, walking, swimming or weight training may help your backache go away.

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