Functional, lightweight and stylish, these 3D printed back braces encourage kids and teenagers to wear them for the amount of time prescribed to avoid back surgery and complications.

Conventional back braces generally do a fine job in helping prevent the progression of side-to-side spine curvature in adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS), which is often diagnosed during late childhood and the early teen years. About 1 in 5 teenagers are prescribed back braces by doctors. Bracing is important to avoid complications, as well as back surgery called spinal fusion, when pieces of the spine are linked together and metal rods are implanted to straighten the back.

The problem with scoliosis braces is that they are not comfortable to wear. These braces are getting better than they used to be, but patients still complain of discomfort and skin irritation. Considering that some kids and teenagers are required by doctors to wear braces up to 20 hours every day, for up to 2 to 3 years, then it is no wonder that they usually take it off when their parents are not looking, and wear them for less time than necessary. 

Another reason for poor compliance is because children and teenagers typically just like to fit in and do not want to stand out from their peers. Wearing a back brace could make them a target for jokes, taunts and bullying. For teenagers, this could present a bigger problem at a time in their lives when body image is very important.

However, if you make back braces more comfortable to wear, plus make them more stylish and fashionable, would children and teenagers with scoliosis wear their braces longer? Yes, according to 3D Systems, a pioneer in the 3D printing industry.

 Based on their pilot program involving 22 patients with scoliosis at Children’s Hospital of Oakland, their 3D printed brace called Bespoke encouraged teenagers and kids to wear them, and the device vastly improved compliance with bracing therapy.

The process: a patient is first fitted with a prototype ‘check-socket’ brace to determine body measurements. Data is then digitized and tweaked to match the curvature and shape of the body, taking into account doctor-prescribed bracing specifications. The custom brace is then 3D printed using 3D Systems’ selective laser sintering (SLS) technology for optimal comfort, durability and flexibility.

“All of our children wanted the Bespoke Brace,” James Policy, MD, Stanford University, said in a statement. “We had a small 3D printed scale model of the brace on my desk. Once the children saw this, they all wanted one. I’ve never seen children respond so positively to a brace. It was so cool that once they were fitted, many were showing the brace off to their friends.” 

Showing off back braces may just be the next in thing to do for scoliosis patients wearing this 3D brace. The company says it plans to make Bespoke braces with different designs and patterns, so that it could be treated more as a piece of clothing or a fashion accessory rather than a medical device for a disability. In pictures provided with their press release, a teenage model wears a figure-hugging brace with ventilation holes arranged in floral and geometric patterns.

“It will take data to convince the insurers and medical community the value of this technology, but common sense dictates that if the children like their braces and are more comfortable wearing the devices, we will see higher compliance and greater success,” said Dr. Policy, who worked with Robert Jensen, CPO, and 3D Systems, in testing the brace. “The early data from our pilot study appears to support this. The Bespoke Brace promises to be an important advancement for these children.”

3D Systems is the same company who are making 3D printed custom prosthetics and exoskeletons for paralytics. Now, they are also helping people with idiopathic scoliosis avoid complications. According to the company, nearly 7 million Americans, 90 percent of them female, are affected by scoliosis.