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BackHug: a ‘world-first’ robotic back therapist



A UK health tech company has launched what it claims to be a “global first” with the launch of its BackHug device, a robotic back therapist which is due to launch next month.

According to NHS figures, back pain is the largest single cause of disability in the UK.

Studies have suggested that up to 60 per cent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lifetime.

New research from Backhug of 2000 British people found that 88 per cent had suffered from some form of back problem.

For businesses, the impact of this is profound.

One study found that back pain accounted for 12.5 per cent of all work absences while the TUC reported that businesses lose approximately 4.9 million days to absenteeism connected to work-related back pain.

Since the coronavirus pandemic and with a growing trend in remote working, the issue has only appeared to have worsened.

The 2021 ONS census revealed that the number of people out of work who reported problems connected with back or neck pain rose by 31 per cent.

According to its survey, BackHug said 63 per cent of people are staying in more due to the cost-of-living crisis and 46 per cent stated that this is causing more back pain and stiffness.

The Edinburgh-based company is seeking to address the issue with the launch of its robotic back therapy device which will be made available to UK businesses and individuals on a subscription basis from June 2023.

“Back pain is a huge undertreated market with very little innovation, surprisingly,” BackHug founder and CEO, Chongsu Lee told Health Tech World.

“But, the market is big and people are all the time shouting for help. People are very frustrated. I think BackHug came at the right time with the right technology.”

Integrating hardware with software

BackHug’s 26 robotic fingers loosen stiff joints in the back, neck and shoulder blades.

Stiff joints are the root cause of most of the pain people experience but cannot be addressed by conventional devices and can be difficult for human therapists to treat.

“Joint stiffness is the key to most of the aches and pains in back pain,” Chongsu said.

“With other legacy devices, like massage guns, massage chairs and massage beds, they use balls and rollers, so they only treat muscles.

“They can only give a superficial muscle treatment which is short-lived and the impact is localised.

“Of course, it gives benefits but when we address the health issues and when you’re trying to achieve the best results, it’s really about how we can address the more primary issues.

“In terms of physical treatment, this is not muscles, it Is the joints in the back that are far more important.”

BackHug is accompanied by a mobile app that allows users to change their settings in real-time, from speed and temperature to duration and treatment area.

In-app physio consultations also assess users’ needs to create a personalised programme.

In total, the device offers 2,000 treatment options.

The device also comes with new proprietary back tension data technology called ‘Spinemap’, which objectively monitors users’ back tension and how it changes over time.

Chongsu Lee

After 20 minutes using BackHug, Spinemap is able to analyse the data and produce a report that compares back tension levels before and after the session.

Part of the company’s mission is to offer an affordable alternative to those on therapy waiting lists and for those who need regular physio appointments.

One BackHug device costs £269 a month for businesses and £99 for home subscriptions, offering unlimited usage.

After a no-obligation 30-day trial, customers can then sign up for a subscription of 12 months or longer.

“This is expensive kit, [but] BackHug is really about making the offering affordable,” Chongsu said.

“It also allows us to continuously update the software during the subscription period.”

Meet the inventor

Chongsu Lee is a former Hyundai engineer turned physiotherapist based in Edinburgh.

He holds an MSc in physiotherapy from Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh and a BEng in industrial engineering from Hanyang University, Seoul.

Chongsu designed BackHug with the aim to transform the lives of over ten million people in the UK living with back pain.

Combining his background as an engineer with his expertise as a physiotherapist, the entrepreneur spent the last seven years designing a machine that aims to replicate what he was doing in his busy physio practice.

BackHug is part of Chongsu’s mission to help people find solutions to the root cause of their illness, a passion that originated from a decade of illness he experienced as a child.

Having had serious health issues since the age of 10, he has dedicated much of his career to learning about the importance of regular exercise, diet and meditation. He now says his health has fully recovered.

“I was doing very well as a physio,” Chongsu said.

“I was treating a lot of people and people travelled [from] across the UK, some of them from Egypt and France.

“My practice was very busy so you can imagine I was spending 10 hours applying this force with my thumbs.”

Inspired by a close friend who suggested he develop a machine to ease the burden on his hands, Chongsu took himself to his local B&Q and began building the first iteration of what would become BackHug.

Little did he know that the device – which he initially thought would take six months to complete – would still be under development seven years later.

“Without a doubt, if I wasn’t an engineer, I wouldn’t have been able to start the development, but also [produce] the hundreds of iterations,” Chongsu said.

“There are a lot of components; 170 different components and 92 of them are customised designs.

“Every one of the 92 customised designs went through hundreds of hundreds of iterations over the last several years.”

This latest launch is the fourth edition of the device, with 200 units to be released in June 2023 followed by a larger release of upwards of 1000 devices next year.

Bringing AI into the equation

 Looking to the future, BackHug is developing ways to integrate AI into the device, analysing data in real-time to recommend personalised treatment programmes.

Working with an AI expert from Edinburgh University, BackHug hopes to release a beta version of its AI technology within the next year.

 Chongsu said:

“We are already developing AI so that we can collect the data from various sources and then eventually, the AI will be able to recommend a treatment program that is even more personalised and even more specific to your needs.

“I think the technology should be good enough to bring significant benefits to people and then that technology may be able to become a focal point where it connects with other technologies and information.

“It doesn’t need to be fragmented.”

The company is also experimenting with incorporating haptic sensors into its Spinemap technology.

Working with another tech company, BackHug is assessing whether capturing 3D data using high-tech haptic sensors could produce a more precise and personalised treatment.

“Whether it’s commercially viable or not, we haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” Chongsu added.

“But we are going to try.”

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