Tag Archives: rehabilitation

The Ultimate 2-for-1: the Power of Contralateral Strength Training

For the competitive athlete, injury often means loss. Loss of playing time, loss of skill development, and most importantly, loss of training time. These are all unfortunate consequence of getting a bone or tissue injury requiring a long-term healing prognosis. Injuries can be so devastating because the road to recovery is often times an arduous two-step process. First, the athlete must wait for their broken bones, torn ligaments, or pulled muscles to naturally heal. During this time, the athlete’s injured limb is likely immobilized in a cast or brace, leaving the resulting muscle to slowly atrophy as the body tries to heal itself. As a result, an athlete must spend the second part of their recovery process re-training the weakened muscles in the immobilized limb to return to full-strength. What if there was a way to heal and train the body at the same time? This is the power of a neurophysiological phenomenon known as “contralateral strength training.”

First observed in 1894, this phenomenon describes the increase in strength seen in an untrained limb of the body after strength training the opposite limb. For example, performing strength training exercises using the left arm has been shown to also induce an increase in strength in the right arm without working out the right arm at all. This effect can be seen in all different muscle groups in the body, in both males and females, and in people of all different ages. Researchers have hypothesized that high-force contractions used in resistance strength training can have a “spillover” effect on the neurons controlling the opposite limb. These neural circuits can carry motor output signals from the trained muscle to the untrained contralateral muscles which works to increase the electrical activity of the untrained muscle and effectively activate the muscle as if it were being trained as well. The video from the YouTube channel “House of Hypertrophy” helps illustrate this effect.

This video is from the YouTube channel “House of Hypertrophy” and helps illustrate the contralateral strength training phenomenon.

Harnessing the power of this neurophysiological phenomenon is key to injury recovery especially when one limb is immobilized for an extended period of time. It’s not just for competitive athletes either. Anybody with an injury can take advantage of contralateral strength training to dramatically speed up injury recovery. This can be especially useful for the elderly population where maintaining balance is an important factor of injury rehab. Imagine being able to maintain the strength and mobility of an elderly patient’s leg after a common surgery such as a knee replacement. Although the leg will be immobilized by a brace or a cast to keep the knee stable after surgery, it could be possible to prevent the muscles from atrophying by simply training the opposite leg with effective physical therapies. This could mean the difference between a smooth recovery versus one where the patient faces serious balance and stability issues as a result of a weakened limb that was immobilized in a cast for weeks to months at a time. Whether it be for injury recovery or specialized strength training, contralateral strength training has an amazing 2-for-1 effect in which the body’s own neural mechanisms allows both homologous muscles to experience the effect of a single unilateral training.

A Second Chance: Robotic Exoskeletons May Be the Future of Mobility for Patients with Spinal Cord Injuries

No one ever imagines themselves getting seriously injured. Accidents do happen though, like car crashes and unexpected sports injuries. These events can drastically change a person’s life, leaving them unable to perform simple daily tasks without assistance, such as walking. One injury that can radically impact a person’s life is a spinal cord injury. There are approximately a quarter of a million people in the United States with spinal cord injuries, and that number grows by 12,500 each year.

The spine is the center of support in the body. It adds structure and facilitates movement. Its other extremely important job is to protect the spinal cord, which is a column of nerves that runs down the length of the neck and back. The spinal cord is part of the nervous system, and it acts as a messenger, taking orders from the brain and relaying these messages to the rest of the body, telling the muscles what to do. If the spinal cord is injured, the messages can’t be delivered properly. This often results in a loss of mobility.

Diagram of the central and peripheral nervous system showing how the spinal cord connects the brain to nerves that run throughout the body
From OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology on Wikimedia Commons

Most people don’t think about the mechanics involved in the simple act of walking. However, in order to walk, various joints such as the hip, knee, and ankle need to work together, rotating and bearing loads to allow for movement. When your foot hits the ground, the ground imparts a force through the foot which is translated up through the lower extremities to the spine. When a spinal cord injury occurs, the brain is unable to communicate with our muscles which inhibits this load bearing and the resulting movement.

Studies have shown that powered exoskeletons have numerous benefits for patients with spinal cord injuries to help with walking and mobility. These powered exoskeletons are built in various ways to bear loads and encourage movement, and a review of different exoskeletons, along with other rehabilitation devices, discusses differences in design and control of the systems. For example, to allow for control of movement, one exoskeleton was built with motors located at the joints while another was designed with a braking system at the joints.

Photo of the Indego powered exoskeleton
Indego Exoskeleton – From Indego.com

One study researched mobility outcomes for patients with injuries that varied in severity and location on the spine. Some patients were paraplegic, which means their lower extremities were paralyzed, and some patients were tetraplegic/quadriplegic, which means the paralysis affected both their lower and upper extremities. Also, some patients had complete spinal cord injuries, which means all feeling was lost below the injury, while others had incomplete spinal cord injuries, which means they had some feeling and some ability to control movement below the injury. This study showed that powered exoskeletons, specifically the Indego exoskeleton, could help a patient move in both indoor and outdoor settings, and there is potential for patients with paraplegia caused by injuries to the lower spine to use this device to allow greater ease of mobility in public spaces. For patients with more severe injuries, such as those with quadriplegia, the powered exoskeleton allowed for slower movement with supervision and occasional assistance from a therapist. These patients also needed assistance with putting on and removing the device. Therefore, the powered exoskeleton won’t help patients with more severe injuries move on their own in public settings, but it was excellent for exercise and rehabilitation.

These exoskeletons are also proven to be safe and feasible. Patients with complete spinal cord injuries did not report discomfort or injury, and they were able to use a powered exoskeleton more easily than previous rehabilitation technology.

Powered exoskeletons may be the future of movement for those who thought they would never walk again. This further reading contains examples of paraplegics who walked using a powered exoskeleton. Another man even walked marathons using one of these devices:

From Freethink on YouTube

There are limitations on these devices, but the robotics field is swiftly evolving, and the technology is giving patients something they never thought they would have: a second chance.

Oops I Did It Again: The Biomechanics Behind Repetitive Ankle Injuries

Ankle injuries – either sprains or fractures – are one of the most common sports traumas plaguing the US today. Sprains are overextensions or tears in ligaments.  Fractures, on the other hand, are broken bones.

Here, we will focus on sprains of which there are three grades. To help visualise a sprain, think of a Fruit By the Foot (the gummy fruit snack you may have eaten as a child). A Grade 1 sprain involves stretching like if you were to pull on either end of the fruit rope and small tears start to develop along the middle. A Grade 2 sprain develops when the tear is larger and originates from a side; a grade 3 sprain is a complete tear into two pieces.

A Little Background

The ankle joint, also known as the talocrural joint is a synovial hinge joint that mainly moves in dorsiflexion and plantarflexion 1. If you were sitting on the ground with both legs extended in front of you, dorsiflexion is the movement of your foot upwards toward your shin, and plantarflexion is the action associated with pointing your toes moving away from your body.

Video Explanation of Ankle Movements in Dorsiflexion and Plantarflexion

Sprains & Pains

The most common type of ligament injury are lateral ankle sprains or inversion sprains where the ankle joint over rotates in the outward direction, especially an inversion while in plantarflexion 2. Exercises that include running, jumping, and/or cutting put the athlete’s ankle at high risk for sprains. This is especially seen in soccer, football, basketball and volleyball players.

Depiction of ankle position with an inversion sprain. Light purple items are bones and have rectangular callouts, while red items are ligaments with circular call outs. Labeled items include: Tibia, Fibula, Talus, Cuboid, and Calcaneus bones as well as the ATFL, PTFL, and CFL (ligaments).
Figure 1 – Left Foot/Ankle in an over-rotation with main bones (in square callouts) and ligaments (in circle callouts) identified

Figure 1 above shows an ankle in the common and compromising position of an inversion sprain. The circled ATFL, PTFL, and CFL are ligaments in the joint, namely the Anterior Talo-Fibular ligament, the Posterior Talo-fibular ligament, and the Calcaneofibular ligament respectively. Additionally, the boxed call outs are bones in the foot.

Numbers show that close to 70% of patients that had experienced a lateral ankle sprain in the past repeated the same injury to their ankle1.

What is the medical explanation behind repeated ankle injuries?

One study by Doherty et al. followed emergency room visits for ankle injuries and found that 40% of patients with ankle sprains had to seek medical treatment for another ankle injury within the year. Yet, another statistic found that over half of people who experience ankle sprains don’t even go to a hospital.

Ankle sprains are sometimes deemed as a “walk-off injury“, or one that hurts momentarily but just needs a few minutes before resuming activity. However, many people suffer from prevalent and reoccurring ankle sprains. Officially dubbed Chronic Ankle Instability or Sprained Ankle Syndrome, this condition is characterised by a host of symptoms including pain, swelling, perceived and actual instability, balance issues, and joint weakness. Chronic Ankle Instability, or CAI more commonly, can also cause a decrease in physical activity, changes to walking or running form, onset arthritis, and problems with knees and hips due to overcompensation1.

The tried-and-true course of action to prevent CAI is efficient rehabilitation. A study showed that if the patient recovers fast enough, the body won’t change movement patterns.

Problem: Altered Movement Patterns

The changing of movement patterns in the ankle joint, or arthrokinematics1 is one of the main factors that contributes to CAI. The brain, like a protective mama bear, trains the body to operate (walk, run, jump) in a different manner to protect the strained ligaments. Over time, muscle memory kicks in and the compensation for ankle mobility becomes your new normal. This adoption of an incorrect form of walking, running, jumping, etc. can backfire and translate to repeated ankle injuries. This muscle memory has been identified as a neurosignature2 from Melzack’s neuromatrix of pain theory; however, this pain theory also describes how elimination of the pain, stress, or chronic symptoms associated with an ankle sprain can prevent reoccurrence – elimination, that is, through efficient rehab.

Solution: Efficient Rehabilitation

A quick recovery can be achieved through various muscle strengthening exercises from a licensed physical therapist or “ankle disk training,” which basically consists of a flat board mounted on a semi-circle. By standing on this unbalanced board, stability can be practiced as well as specific ligament targeting to build muscle. A more serious solution of ankle surgery showed a 90% success rate of mediating mechanical instability, but this is not a widely-practiced nor traditional treatment plan for CAI3. In fact, ankle taping and/or lace-up 3 bracing when exercising proved most helpful in preventing over rotations of the lateral ligaments.

Soft Robotics: Humanizing the Mechanical

Cassie the robot, created by Dr. Mikhail Jones at Oregon State University
Cassie the Robot, developed by Mikhail Jones, Faculty Research Assistant in Mechanical Engineering at Oregon State University.

In media and science-fiction, robots have stereotypically, and perhaps somewhat unfairly, been depicted as mechanical, stiff assemblies of moving joints and complicated circuitry. While this still holds true for many robots designed today, whether for industry or research, the past few years have seen a growing interest in soft robotics in academia, industry, and popular culture. As the name implies, many research groups have begun investing in constructing robots from compliant, softer materials.

Stickybot, a gecko-inspired robot.
Stickybot, a biomimetic robot.

Inspired by the way organisms in nature survive and adapt to their surroundings (formally known as biomimicry), the advantages of soft robotic components lie in their flexibility, sensitivity, and malleability – delicate tasks or interactions involving other people would be better accomplished by robots made of compliant materials rather than one that could potentially cause harm to the object or person. To that end, many of the applications of soft robotic research have already seen results in the medical industry, from invasive surgery to assistive exosuits. By taking inspiration from biological creatures or mechanisms, softer materials like rubbers and plastics can be actuated to accomplish tasks conventional, “hard” robots could struggle with.

Animation of pneumatic muscle.
Animation of pneumatic air muscle used as robotic actuators.

The most common method of moving these robotic parts is with changes in internal pressure. By creating a “hard”, skeletal frame, and surrounding it with soft, sealed membranes, changes in pressure allow the designer to control its components precisely. By decreasing the pressure and creating a vacuum, the robotic section would shrink or crumple, and increasing it would do the opposite. Researchers at Harvard developed “artificial muscles” by taking this concept a step further; using origami, they were able to design soft robotic mechanisms that could orient themselves into tunable positions as the pressure was changed inside the membrane (as a side note, origami is used in a surprising number of research fields, one of the most famous being satellite deployment). Compared to the challenge of precisely controlling prismatic (sliding) joints and servos in conventional robotics, the compliance of the materials used allow for finer control and smaller ranges of applied forces that are better suited for precise tasks.

Animation of a person demonstrating the Miura fold on a piece of paper
The Miura fold pictured here is often used to deploy large surfaces while minimizing volume, such as for satellites.

Another significant advantage of soft robots over their stiff counterparts is their adaptability to environmental conditions. Generally speaking, robots do not do well in water (or lava, for that matter), but it would have little effect on robots covered in a sealed, pressurized “skin”. This is what inspired NASA in 2015 to fund research into soft robots that could explore the oceans of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.  Similarly, a light-activated underwater robotic manta ray was designed at a centimeter scale to study the effect of environmental cues on controllable robots.

Schematic and pictures of soft robot design.
A soft-legged robot with walking capabilities.

While research in soft robotics is still relatively new, it has the potential to significantly affect the role of robots in our daily lives. As a softer, safer, and more environmentally robust alternative to “hard” robots, wearable robotic devices, exploratory robotic fish, and personal medical attendants could soon become commonplace for the general public.

Continue reading Soft Robotics: Humanizing the Mechanical

What is Tommy John surgery?

Baseball card of Tommy John for the Los Angeles Dodgers
From Zellner, “A History and Overview of Tommy John Surgery,” Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Specialists

In July of 1974, Tommy John, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, felt a twinge in his throwing arm, and could no longer pitch. Dr. Frank Jobe tried a new kind of surgery on John’s elbow, and after missing only one season, Tommy John returned to the mound in 1976 and continued pitching until 1989.

How?

The surgery which bears Tommy John’s name is by now a common buzzword in the baseball community. Over 500 professional and hundreds of lower level players have received this treatment, but even the most avid fan may still be unsure what it means.

Tommy John surgery is the colloquial name for surgery on the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This ligament is vital to the elbow, especially in the throwing motion. Injury to the UCL accrues over time; fraying and eventual tearing occurs after repeated and vigorous use. Baseball pitchers, throwing around 100 times per game and at speeds upwards of 100 mph, put themselves in danger of UCL injury.

Location of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the human arm, shown on a baseball pitcher.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Tendons in the elbow joint, with the Ulnar Collateral Ligament marked
Image from Wikimedia Commons

What can be done when a player injures his or her UCL?

Prior to 1974, not much. Ice and rest, the most common suggestions, would do little to improve serious UCL damage. A “dead arm” spelled the end of a player’s career. Dr. Jobe would change that. 

Jobe removed part of a tendon from Tommy John’s non-pitching forearm and grafted it into place in the elbow. John’s recovery required daily physical therapy before slowly starting to throw again.

Since Jobe’s pioneer surgery on Tommy John, most patients undergo a similar kind of reconstruction procedure. A tendon from either the forearm (palmaris longus) or the hamstring (gracilis), is looped through holes drilled in the humerus and ulna, the bones of the upper arm and inner side of the forearm. In some modern cases, the hope is to repair the UCL with a brace that lets it heal itself rather than total replacement. This allows for faster recovery time because the new blood vessels that have to form in traditional ligament replacement are unnecessary. In either case, athletes recovering from UCL surgery, a procedure which itself takes less than two hours, typically require at least a year to restore elbow stability, function, and strength.

Some misconceptions about Tommy John surgery exist. One 2015 study found that nearly 20% of those surveyed believe the surgery increases pitch speed. However, increase in pitch speed may be affected more by the extensive rehabilitation process rather than the new tendon itself.

The study also found that more than a third of coaches and more than a quarter of high school and collegiate athletes believe the surgery to be valuable for a player without an injured elbow. This perception of Tommy John surgery makes it seem like a superhuman kind of enhancement, as if out of The Rookie of the Year, or worse, it becomes like a performance enhancing drug. In reality, a replacement UCL at best replicates normal elbow behavior. A procedure capable of creating a superhero might be attractive, but for now, Tommy John surgery just helps players get back in the game.

 

For further information:

 

How Many MLB Players Have Had Tommy John Surgery?

Why do bone fractures take a long time for healing?

An athlete walking on crutches across the field - from The Washington Post
An athlete walking on crutches across the field – from The Washington Post

Have you observed that someone around you has broken their arms or legs? Bone fracture is a complete or incomplete break of bone continuity. And it is very common in our daily lives that there are more than 3 million cases in the U.S. per year. Many events may cause bone fractures, such as falls, car accidents or sports injuries. So, do you know how long it takes for the fracture to heal?

Locking compression plate used for treatment of a proximal femoral fracture - by Bjarke Viberg on ResearchGate
Locking compression plate used for the treatment of a proximal femoral fracture – by Bjarke Viberg on ResearchGate

Bone fracture healing is a repair process that consists of multiple stages. There are two types of repair: primary and secondary bone healing. Primary healing only occurs with the application of rigid internal fixation, for example, a compression plate. The rigid fixation provides absolute stability, and primary healing includes attempting to reconstruct the continuity between fracture fragments.

In contrast, secondary healing occurs when the fixation is not rigid. For secondary healing, there are four stages: inflammatory response, soft callus formation, hard callus formation, and bone remodeling. After the bone fracture, torn vessels form hematoma, which is localized bleeding outside of blood vessels within the fracture site and provides a foundation for the following stages. The inflammation begins immediately and continues until the cartilage or bone begins to form. During the inflammatory phase, stem cells migrate to the fracture site, form the granulation tissue (new connective tissue and microscopic blood vessels), and release growth factors that stimulate bone formation. This phase usually lasts 3-4 days and may last up to one week.

In the second week after the bone fracture, soft callus (cartilage) begins to form. At this stage, cells within periosteum (the membrane covers the outer surface of the bone) and granulation tissue begin to proliferate and differentiate into chondrocytes until they bind with each other. Chondrocytes are the cells found in cartilage connective tissue and constitute the “bridging callus”. In addition, the amount of newly formed cartilage is related to stability, that less stability leads to more cartilage. The formation of soft callus will be completed within the first three weeks after the fracture, which means this phase needs approximately two weeks to complete.

The following stage is hard callus formation, also known as endochondral ossification. It is a replacement of cartilage with bone. Mineralization of cartilage develops from the ends to the center of the fracture site. The trabecular bone would be formed from osteoblasts (cells that synthesize bone tissue) on the newly exposed mineralized surface. Finally, all the cartilage turns into trabecular bone and forms the “hard callus”. At the end of this phase, the injured bone will be able to recover sufficient strength and rigidity for rehabilitation exercise.

4 stages of secondary fracture healing. Stage 1: Inflammatory response. Stage 2: Soft callus formation. Stage 3: Hard callus formation. Stage 4: Bone remodeling - from Bigham-Sadegh & Oryan, International Wound Journal 2014
4 stages of secondary fracture healing. Stage 1: Inflammatory response. Stage 2: Soft callus formation. Stage 3: Hard callus formation. Stage 4: Bone remodeling – from Bigham-Sadegh & Oryan, International Wound Journal 2014

The final stage of secondary bone healing is bone remodeling. This phase starts 3-4 weeks after the bone fracture. Bone remodeling is a slow process that may last 6-9 years, which is 70% of the total healing time. In the remodeling, osteoclasts (cells that break down bone tissue) resorb the trabecular bone, and osteoblasts deposit compact bone. It is a process of equilibrium between resorption and formation, that the trabecular bone is replaced by compact bone, in order to recreate the bone to appropriate shape and adapt to mechanical loads and strain.

In clinical treatment, bone fracture usually takes 6-8 weeks to heal. However, it does not mean the bone is totally cured. When the doctor says the treatment is finished and it is fine to let the body free from the fixation, the bone actually is at the beginning of the final stage since the bone remodeling may take several years.

For more details of the bone fracture healing, please check the following video:

For further reading, please click here and here.

Put One Foot in Front of the Other? It’s Not that Easy

From Christmas movies to pop songs to motivational posters, we are encouraged to keep putting “one foot in front of the other.” While the sentiment is inspiring, recent studies show that there is a lot more to the seemingly simple task of walking than this phrase would suggest. Understanding this is especially important for balance and mobility after an injury or as people age.

The steps that make up the human walking cycle. Order of steps: heel-strike right, toe-off left, midstance right, heel-strike left, toe-off right, midstance left, hell-strike right. The body spends the time between heel-strike and toe-off with double support and the midstances are single-leg support.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The human gait has a set structure that switches the weight between each leg, with only 20% of the typical walking motion distributing the weight across both feet. Maintaining balance throughout this process requires coordination in the muscles controlling the hips, knees, ankles, and feet. Mechanically, these adjustments keep the body’s center of mass (also known as center of gravity) over the base formed by feet positioning.

Obstacles and challenges to balance require a body’s quick response to mitigate shifts in the acceleration and momentum at the center of mass. Lack of efficient control over these parameters results in a fall. Many conditions, as well as age, can affect a person’s ability to respond to mobility challenges.

One specific study looked at how people who had had a stroke and subsequent partial paralysis on one side (paresis) faced mobility challenges compared with healthy folks. This condition effects approximately 400,000-500,000 people in the United States annually. It presents a unique opportunity to compare an individual’s non-damaged stride with their deficient stride at the point in the gait at which only one leg is on the ground (SLS, or single-leg-stride). The timing of the gait, the body’s momentum in all three planes of the body, and the location of the center of mass were recorded in this study.

Anatomical planes of the body. The sagittal plane splits the body left and right. The coronal plane splits the body forward and back. The transverse plane splits the body top and bottom.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Versus healthy people, stroke survivors had significant trouble regulating momentum in the coronal plane, making falls more likely. Although it makes sense that momentum regulation suffers when muscles are paretic, it is yet unclear why the coronal plane was most affected. Additionally, post-stroke individuals’ centers of gravity were higher, which is also linked to instability. For stroke survivors, the partially paralyzed SLS took longer and extended farther from the center of mass than the regular SLS. While this is not as immediately dangerous as increasing falling risk, it slows mobility, unevenly works muscles (which can lead to injury), and is less efficient.

Going forward, these findings can be used to improve mobility success in people with balance issues or after injuries. This could manifest in better technologies, such as walkers that better help settle a person’s center of mass and partial exoskeletons that would help a person mitigate acceleration and momentum changes, or more targeted and individualistic physical therapies to strengthen weakened muscles and practice patient-specific challenges, such as overcoming obstacles that threaten coronal-plane balance. Understanding more about balance adjustment when walking may make some common phrases trite, but its potential benefits have life-changing impacts for many.

Further Reading and Sources:

Stroke/Paresis Information

Stability of Stepping

Medical Marvel: Robotic exoskeletons enable those with spinal cord injury to walk again

Claire Lomas surrounded by supporters as she walks the 2012 London Marathon
Lulu Kyriacou [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
A fall off of her horse in 2007 caused Claire Lomas to lose all function in her legs. In 2012, she completed the London Marathon, all 26.2 miles. Robotic exoskeletons can literally get people back on their feet shortly after a spinal cord injury occurs, but how exactly do these medical devices not only supplement but restore human performance? What does the future look like for robotic exoskeletons and those with paralysis?

There are approximately 300,000 people living with SCI in the United States, with 17,700 affected annually. So what exactly is a spinal cord injury? A spinal cord injury occurs when trauma, disease, or compression due to tumors causes damage to your spinal cord, which is responsible for your body’s motor functions (voluntary muscle movements), sensory functions (what you feel, such as temperature, pressure and pain), and autonomous functions (your heart beat, body temperature regulation, or digestion). Injuries are classified as complete or incomplete, with complete corresponding to a total loss of function or sensory feedback in areas of the body which are lower than the injury level.

Image showing the area of injury corresponding to the resulting level of paralysis
http://www.living-with-attendant-care.info/Content/Spinal_Cord_Injury_c_Understanding_spinal_cord_injury.html

Studies have shown that people with spinal cord injury, specifically individuals with paraplegia-paralysis who retain function of their upper limbs, prioritize walking as the main function they wish to regain. Robotic exoskeletons, which operate in collaboration with the user to reinforce and retrain certain functions, may be the answer to this pressing need. An exoskeleton  facilitates untethered step repetitions and evenly redistributes the user’s weight to his or her core, minimizing stress on the user’s back, neck, and shoulder muscles. One study testing the exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics also showed an improvement in unassisted balance, since the device only initiates the next step if the user properly shifts his or her weight. Though primarily used for gait or mobility training in rehabilitation facilities, these devices are on their way to becoming everyday mobility aids for people with paralysis.

Rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries is long and tedious. Robotic exoskeletons enable patients to begin rehabilitation early after injury, which helps to prevent joint contracture (which is a limit in a joint’s range of motion, preserve muscle memory and strength, retain bone density, and ensure proper functioning of the digestive and respiratory systems). Humans are meant to be vertical and active, so just the act of standing reduces spasticity (perpetual muscle contraction) and pain, decreases the risk of pressure ulcers or osteoporosis from sitting or laying down for extended periods, and improves bowel and bladder functioning. Moreover, the ability to stand at eye-level and walk again reduces instances of depression.

Despite all of these benefits, current models aren’t perfect yet. The energy demand to operate the devices and consequential fatigue of the user limits long-term use, which restricts use outside of therapy. When people hear exoskeleton, images of Marvel’s Iron Man or soldiers carrying heavy packs come to mind. The advance of robotic exoskeletons may expand their use beyond rehabilitation facilities, allowing them to become integrated into everyday life.

Biomechanics: a Key Factor in Rehabilitation of Neurological Diseases

In the rapidly evolving modern world, technological advancements are allowing for more effective research and treatment of diseases, disorders, and injuries sustained by humans.  One of the foremost areas of current research in the biomechanics field is that of its role in treatment and rehabilitation of neurological disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and multiple sclerosis (MS).  According to the United Nations, as many as 1 billion people in the world live with neurological disorders.  This post will focus mainly on how biomechanics can aid in the treatment and rehabilitation of ALS and MS.  ALS is a fatal disease that causes degeneration of motor neurons leading to muscle atrophy and loss of motor skills.  MS is a nonfatal disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its central nervous system which can cause pain in movement and loss of motor function.  ALS and MS have no known cures; therefore, it is necessary that steps be taken in order to counteract the disabling symptoms of the diseases.  For ALS, rehabilitation can help to sustain motor function thus leading to an enhanced quality of life and perhaps a longer life expectancy.  For MS, rehabilitation can potentially allow for patients to regain motor function in areas where it may have been lost.

diagram showing example of how whole body function is determined by function of much smaller tissues
photo from Kulig & Burnfield, The role of biomechanics in orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation (2008)

 

Biomechanical research has led to breakthroughs in terms of understanding the root cause and resulting difficulties of movement caused by diseases such as MS and ALS.  Many people living with MS and ALS face challenges walking due to muscle weakness and the inability to balance.  Thanks to clinical gait studies, the abnormalities of the stride of people with MS and ALS can be thoroughly analyzed by comparison to the average stride of a human.  The root of these abnormalities can be discovered and addressed through rehabilitation exercises or biomechanical technology such as braces or implants that deliver medicine to muscles.

 

 

gait study participant equipped with surface electrodes, footswitches, and passive reflective markers walking on force plate sensors
photo from Kulig & Burnfield, The role of biomechanics in orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation (2008)

 

An article by Kornelia Kulig and Judith Marie Burnfield explains how clinical gait studies are performed using footswitches, passive reflective markers, force plates, and electrodes to record data on stride characteristics, full body kinematics, ground reaction forces, and muscle activity.  Footswitches enable initial detection of irregularities.  The kinematic data recorded by the passive reflective markers can then trace the irregularity to the source of the issue.  Ground reaction forces signify stress levels placed on various joints. Electrodes assist in distinguishing between movements that are a direct result of disability versus movements that are performed in order to make up for the lack of muscle function.

Clinical gait studies are just one example of how biomechanics research can improve rehabilitation techniques for those with neurological disorders.  Any basic muscular function lost to a neurological disorder (such as hand/grip function) is theoretically able to be treated through proper biomechanical research and rehabilitation.  It is a truly exciting prospect that diseases that were once permanently disabling are now becoming more and more treatable with the goal of a permanent cure in mind.

For additional information on the topic of neurological rehabilitation, visit this Wikipedia article.

 

Walk [Under] Water: The Benefits of Underwater Running

Just because you can’t walk on water doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run under it!

Aqua-jogging. Hydro-running. Water-treadmills. Have you ever heard some combination of these terms and wondered what the hype is?

Running underwater offers benefits for people throughout their fitness journey. Underwater running has proven useful for a variety of focuses, including recovery after injury, cross training, and even improved gait. This article includes a video showing a Runner’s World coach tries out a Hydrotrack and discusses some of the benefits!

So, why does it work?

Three basic water properties: hydrostatic pressure, buoyancy, and viscosity.

Hydrostatic pressure is the force that the water exerts on a submerged point. Hydrostatic pressure acts all around the point. However, since hydrostatic pressure is proportional to the weight of liquid above the point, it increases with increased water depth. This means that your feet would experience greater hydrostatic pressures than your knees. While running, this pressure helps support your body and decrease impact forces. In addition to helping prevent injuries through a decreased risk of falling, it also helps decrease swelling and promote cardiovascular health. This article talks about the specifics of pressure with swelling and the cardiovascular system.

Diagram showing hydrostatic forces. Magnitude of the hydrostatic force is larger as it goes deeper below the surface.
Hydrostatic pressure acts on all sides of a point. The pressure increases with depth. Created in Microsoft PowerPoint.

Buoyancy is the hydrostatic force applied to an object with volume (rather than just a point). Since they are at the same depth, all the horizontal forces cancel out. Since the bottom of the object is deeper than the top, the net buoyant force on the object pushes up. The difference between the buoyant force and the weight of the object submerged determines if the object will rise, sink, or stay in place. Thus, the more submerged a person is, the more of their weight is supported. This research article explains how this support can help make gait analysis more effective to further prevent injury. When water reaches the person’s navel, 50% of their weight is supported. This weight bearing capability of water decreases forces on joints and can even help improve range of motion. This allows physical therapy to begin sooner and, overall, take less time out of the patient’s normal routine. This allows shorter rehabilitation times without sacrificing quality of care or recovery.

 

Diagrams showing how the hydrostatic force varies around the submerged object due to depth. The side forces cancel out at equal depth leaving a net buoyant force acting upward against the downward force of the object weight.
Buoyant forces cancel out on the sides leading to the second image showing the net buoyant force and the weight of the object. Created in Microsoft PowerPoint.

Viscosity is a fluid property that affects the resistance that an object encounters during motion. In the case of underwater running, viscosity explains why you move significantly slower in water than on land. It also can offer resistance up to 15 times the amount of resistance on land. Forcing your limbs through the water strengthens muscles that are not typically used out of the water and even burns more calories!

As noted above, viscosity can help strengthen muscles as shown in this study on deep water running (DWR) in a community of elderly women shows how viscosity affects overall strength training. It showed that the women who participated in DWR increased their muscle strength (measured through power) and performed better in various tests, including ones that involved sitting down and getting up. The study showed that deep water running helped to mitigate some of the negative muscular effects of aging.

Overall, running underwater offers some great benefits. The basic properties of water (hydrostatic pressure, buoyancy, and viscosity) provide scientific background for why hydro-running provides benefits for all.