Science helps lab understand movement, prevent injuries

Rob Karwath | June 27, 2016

A scientific approach is helping Northwestern’s Sweere Center for Biomechanics & Applied Ergonomics understand why people struggle with movement and how they can prevent pain and injury.

The reaction is the same when patients visit the biomechanics laboratory at Northwestern Health Sciences University to test how their bodies work.

Reflective markers are attached to the patients, allowing their body segments to be tracked by infrared cameras and a high-speed video camera. The subjects then are digitized, allowing them to see their animated electronic skeletons on a large computer screen.

“They’re always surprised to see that,” says Dr. Greg DeNunzio, Clinical Director of the Biomechanics Division at Northwestern.

It’s not every day that patients come face to face with their skeletons. But that’s the scientific approach at Northwestern’s Sweere Center for Biomechanics & Applied Ergonomics to understanding why people struggle with movement, how they can improve—and how they can prevent pain and injury in the first place.

“This is just the beginning,” says DeNunzio, a chiropractor who also holds an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. He came to Northwestern with various certifications, including as a Level II Advanced Sports Performance coach from USA Weightlifting and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. He has been in practice as a chiropractor for more than 20 years and also owns a CrossFit gym with two partners.

“Our goal is to analyze all types of movement,” DeNunzio says. “We’re finding problems by analyzing the way people move like very few places in the country can do. We have performed 60 gait analyses since February, and I have met with 54 of those people to review their findings and give them corrective strategies, such as exercises, stretches and motor-control drills. Some have also undergone chiropractic treatment. We are now also exploring the analysis of lifting movements.”

Generous donors and a commitment from the university have blessed the center with a $600,000 collection of equipment. It is one of the nation’s most extensive and technologically advanced labs available for public use, along with research. The technology enables experts to examine patients and how they move at a deep level—literally down to their skeletons.

“We’re proud of this facility, the Sweere Center and the work that Dr. DeNunzio and the team are doing to do advance research, rehab and patient care in biomechanics,” says Northwestern President Christopher Cassirer. “The center is truly on its way to emerging as a world-class operation. The services we offer now are taking a leading role helping athletes, employees and others live, work and play healthier. We're excited about the promise and the potential of the Sweere Center to help advance Northwestern's mission and vision.”

Recently, the center received national attention with a first-person story in the Washington Post by a Twin Cities freelance writer who also is a runner. Using the lab’s testing capabilities, Northwestern’s experts were able to help her understand the reasons behind her chronic running injuries and how she can get back to the sport she loves.

The testing revealed dysfunctional hip movement as well as a finding that her knees absorb more force than they put out, suggesting inefficiencies that could cause injuries. With a series of exercises designed to correct her biomechanics, DeNunzio told the woman she should be able to run again. It was the first time she understood why her injuries were occurring.

The center’s many pieces of equipment—including 12 motion-capture cameras, sensors and force- plates under a treadmill—help DeNunzio and other experts see in three-dimensional clarity the biomechanical issues that they couldn’t diagnose simply by watching people run, lift or otherwise move.

“It goes to more accurately assessing and helping diagnose at a deep level that you can’t get by looking with the naked eye,” he says. “When we do it in the lab, the details are remarkable, and we can see all of the angles and forces at work. People see the results and say, ‘No wonder I have hip or knee pain.’”

The lab’s approach reflects Northwestern’s long-held belief that to be successful, the work of health-care professionals must be based on science. Scientific findings, DeNunzio says, are vital to helping the lab and its patients succeed.

“It’s fantastic to be out in practice and to coach people in a gym, but now we can put numbers behind what we do and validate what we do,” he says. “We want to get back to research. We measure you. We get a baseline. We give you corrective actions and then do another analysis.

 “When we do that, we really have something. If we can measure it, we can validate what we do.”

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