Specialty Back Brace Racks Up Sales

By Alex Nixon The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Bad posture is good for ActivAided Orthotics.

The three-year-old Pittsburgh company is seeing sales accelerate for RecoveryAid, a device similar to a back brace but which is designed to help active people retrain muscles to eliminate a leading source of back pain.

"It essentially makes having bad posture uncomfortable," said Kelly Collier, the 25-year-old CEO of ActivAided who last month was named the 2014 Western Pennsylvania Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration.

Americans spend billions of dollars each year treating back pain, a huge opportunity for the company, which Collier said logged $100,000 in RecoveryAid sales last year. She declined to estimate sales in 2014, but said, "we're definitely seeing an increase this year."

Collier was a senior at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011 when she founded the company with Dr. Gary Chimes, who was employed by UPMC and serves as the company's medical adviser.

RecoveryAid looks like a T-shirt with several compression straps around the lower back and abdomen that create tension when the patient wearing it doesn't keep his or her spine in alignment, Collier said.

It was developed as a biomedical engineering class project at CMU by Collier, a competitive swimmer who had dealt with back pain, and several other students who were working with Chimes, who's a specialist in sports medicine.

Sales efforts so far have concentrated mainly in Western Pennsylvania, but she said the company plans to expand to other nearby regions.

"We've done some really good work in Pittsburgh, but we have a ways to go before we've really saturated this area," she said.

The company has received $395,000 in investor funding from CMU, Innovation Works and the Urban Redevelopment Authority, she said.

RecoveryAid is prescribed by doctors and covered by most insurance, just as a traditional back brace would be. Most sales are to medical equipment suppliers, but ActivAided sells the product directly to consumers on its website, ActivAided.com.

Nearly every American adult can expect to experience back pain at some point in life, according to the National Institutes of Health. With America's obesity epidemic and growing number of senior citizens, the number of Americans who will seek treatment is growing.

The latest government data available from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, placed annual spending on back pain treatments at $30 billion in 2007. That's nearly double the inflation-adjusted amount that was spent in 1997.

Most treatments -- such as pain relievers, muscle relaxers and steroid shots -- address the pain associated with a back injury rather than doing anything to repair the damage and prevent further injuries, said Chimes, who left UPMC in 2013 and is now in private practice at a sports medicine clinic in Washington state.

"A lot of low-back pain is related to postural issues," he said.

Wearing RecoveryAid forces a patient to keep good posture, which retrains and strengthens the muscles that stabilize the lower back, he said.

"When they're using it, the process of fixing their posture becomes automatic," he said.

A patient typically wears the device for two to three months, Collier said. In its own testing with 60 people, ActivAided found 89 percent experienced a decrease in pain, she said.

Dr. Jesse Sally, director of rehabilitation and sports medicine at Washington Hospital in Washington County, has prescribed RecoveryAid to about 50 patients in the past two years.

"I like the brace because it allows the patient to maintain most of their functional mobility," he said.

He said he has found best results with active, middle-aged patients. But the device doesn't provide much benefit to people with sedentary lifestyles.

"In terms of symptomatic improvement, this is a great product," he said. "It helps people get back into activity faster."

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