Measuring movement

University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center’s new facility brings new technology to the region.

Measuring movement
University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center / provided
Doctors and scientists at OU’s Center for Human Performance Measurement will assess movement with a new motion analysis system.

Technology evolved from World War II-era flight simulators and similar to that used to create computer-generated characters in blockbuster movies and video games will help physicians, physical therapists and educators assess human movement and prevent injury at a new facility opening this spring at University of Oklahoma’s College of Allied Health.

The Center for Human Performance Measurement, the only facility of its kind in the Oklahoma City metro region, is home to a motion-analysis system utilizing 12 cameras to detect movements in three dimensions. Human participants outfitted with strategically positioned reflective markers perform physical tasks on camera, allowing their movement to be captured and analyzed in great detail. Force plates installed in the floor measure ground-reaction forces to help determine kinetics.

“There are two parts of biomechanics: kinematics, which is movement, and kinetics, which is forces placed upon each joint system,” said Carol Dionne, doctor of physical therapy and the center’s director. “This is fancy talk meaning that we can assess any joint within our bodies during the performance of any kind of movement. … In summary, we can determine the biomechanics of any movement and the muscle activity during that movement at the same time. So it’s a full assessment of people’s movement and muscle activity.”

The equipment at the new center is capable of measuring gait, balance and muscle activation in such specific detail that the data can be used to determine subtle deviations that might lead to greater injury risk over time. Dionne, an associate professor of rehabilitation sciences at the university, said she has been seeking opportunities to analyze human biomechanics in greater detail since she began practicing physical therapy in 1977.

“I’ve always analyzed movement; that’s the core of what physical therapists do — assess human movement,” Dionne said. “This was an opportunity where all the conditions were right — the location, the funding, the grant application — all at once. … I was very fortunate. All the stars were in alignment, so to speak.”

Historic data

The center acquired equipment through a grant from Presbyterian Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization funding medical research and education in Oklahoma City. The center’s administrators are hiring staff to run the facility and operate the equipment, which also includes a wireless electromyography machine to detect muscle activation and two high-powered computers to analyze the large volumes of data collected.

“Processing data is huge,” Dionne said. “There’s a lot of data points.”

The technology has advanced tremendously since Edwin Link first began teaching Air Corps pilots to read flight gauges using a facsimile airplane attached to a system of pneumatic organ bellows and vacuum tubes during World War II, and the potential uses for motion detection have multiplied exponentially.

“From that, the computer went from the size of a room to the size of the palm of your hand,” Dionne said. “Engineering can go right, left and center, and the applications are all over the place.”

Potential movement

One application for human performance measurement will be helpful to Dionne in her work as the director of the university’s Mechanical Therapy Research Lab, which is dedicated to researching ways people with lower limb loss can prevent work-related injuries.

“We have a population of working-age adults who have undergone, for whatever reason, limb amputation, and after rehab, we have to determine if they’re ready to go back to work,” said Dionne of the study’s participants. “These are people who are already working and they have volunteered themselves to see how they perform, how they walk at different paces, how they lift weighted objects, how they carry weighted objects — in other words simulating a job-type activity, and we analyze that to determine a potential risk for injury.”

Other potential studies are widely varied, and Dionne said that the center will be utilized by researchers and educators throughout the university system as well as medical practitioners seeking research to develop more effective rehabilitation and risk-assessment. Though the center is not a patient-care facility, the studies conducted there might have a wide-ranging impact on treatment methods.

“I’m in the process of working with what we call the primary investigators who are very interested in using the center,” Dionne said, “and we’re collaborating with them to apply for grant funding, and right now, we’re in those stages. We’re also working to negotiate and form relationships with different physician groups.”

Studies performed at the center might have applications for professional athletes, ballet dancers, people suffering from multiple sclerosis and medical professionals performing resuscitation in neonatal intensive care units. The equipment can be calibrated to measure the biomechanics of people of all shapes and sizes.

“We also are able to test people throughout the age span,“ Dionne said. “These are sensitive enough instruments [that] we in this particular center have tested babies. You can adjust the settings and the parameters and also the force plates and the processing speed by which we detect the movement accordingly so we can measure infant movement.”

Though some researchers in other fields have also suggested potential applications for veterinarian medicine and even the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, Dionne said these types of studies are not the center’s immediate priority.

“But I think right now, our focus is human performance measurement, underline human,” she said.

Within the field of physical therapy alone, the potential for advancing knowledge through research conducted at the new center is considerable because the measurement of human movement is at the heart of how physical therapists help people.

“Assessing movement is like the fruition of our work in rehabilitation sciences,” Dionne said. “We assess patients, evaluate patients, and we have to perhaps minimize, reduce or eliminate pain because that’s the big disruptor in movement, but the end result, performance, is what it’s all about — return to work, return to sport, live pain-free. That’s what we do. That’s our job.”