Injuries

Ending the pain

Computer simulations and data analysis can now help prevent injuries, while individual prostheses hasten the recovery process.

When a highly paid professional athlete is out of action, the bills quickly add up. According to the Global Sports Salaries Survey, injuries in the top professional leagues cost football teams worldwide an average of $12.4 million per year. The most common mishaps involve knees, shoulders, elbows and ankles, explains Andreas Imhoff, head of the Sports Orthopaedics Department from the hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar of the Technical University of Munich.

Sometimes an injury develops slowly, through incorrect movements. Gait Up, a Swiss spin-off of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), has developed a movement tracker to help prevent this. The athlete wears a matchbox-size plastic box weighing just a few grams on his shoes or chest. The tracker’s numerous sensors then record movement patterns. Using analysis software, a trainer can identify errors in these patterns. In theory, it can also work in real time. “We’re planning to adapt it so that marathon runners can identify errors in their running style during the race itself,” said Benoit Mariani, founder and CEO of Gait Up. “We’ve also used movement analysis on skiers, swimmers and players of team sports.” Several scientific studies have shown that this approach can reduce the risk of injury.

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Fewer injuries thanks to data analysis

So far so good, but what happens when a tendon or muscle fibre tears, or when an athlete accidentally falls or collides with another one? Isn’t that simple bad luck? Ireland’s Stephen Smith has never believed that. When this former professional coach examined injury statistics for basketball and baseball leagues more closely, he was struck by the huge discrepancies in the teams’ injury costs. Statistically, bad luck should have affected them all to the same extent. Smith was therefore convinced that there must be a reason for this uneven distribution – and that it could be found in the data.

Many factors influence an athlete’s behaviour and therefore the risk of injury: movement style, vital signs, psyche, fitness level, diet, sleep and of course previous injuries. Smith’s company, Kitman Labs, collates all these data and uses an algorithm to calculate individual risk profiles. A trainer can then use an app to see how high the injury risk is for each of his athletes and on that basis decide who plays and who stays on the bench. Kitman Labs has already advised teams in the U.S. football, basketball and baseball leagues, reducing injuries by up to 30% in two years.

Giants like IBM and SAP are getting into the game, too. “The real market, however, is amateur sports, which is where most injuries occur,” says Mark Lehew of SAP’s Sports & Entertainment Industry Business Unit. “Professional athletes are trained and know how to fall.” Indeed, according to a study by the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, every year one million people in Germany injure themselves so severely playing sports as to require medical assistance, which itself has also improved considerably. “Before, we had to cut joints open but now we can use minimally invasive arthroscopic procedures to operate on many different areas,” says Imhoff. “And we use biodegradable implants, which shortens an athlete’s recovery time tremendously.”

The perfect prosthesis

Modern computer simulation techniques can help surgeons. Rüdiger Westermann, Professor of Computer Science at the Technical University of Munich, uses a computer to simulate the forces that act on a patient’s bones. With this information, he can predict how bones grow. If a patient is fitted with a standard prosthesis, the bones may develop in such a way that the prosthesis works itself loose. “Our simulations give surgeons tips on which type is best for which bone, and where best to fit it.”

Westermann’s simulations are also useful for healthy athletes. “If we could just simulate the entire body, including muscles and tendons, it would be possible to simulate the perfect motion sequence for an athlete.” That is still some way off. But it would then be possible to calculate not just the perfect training schedule, but the perfect discus throw, shot-put or pole vault. The world records of the future could come straight out of a computer.

Active ageing: a European research priority

To face the increasing pressure on health and social-care costs, the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) – the European Union’s research and development organisation – has launched the EIT Health project. It aims to accelerate entrepreneurship and innovations that promote healthy living and active ageing by bringing together 140 pharmaceutical and medtech companies, research institutions and universities.

Meanwhile, the Technical University of Munich is addressing the issue of restricted mobility with its “Active Hands” project. The goal is to develop a system to support individuals who have trouble performing daily tasks due either to old age or to central nervous system diseases. ETH Zurich is heading in the same direction with its “Hand Tech” project, which could help stroke patients regain control of a paretic hand.

One of the world’s largest healthcare initiatives, EIT Health was launched this year with a budget of €2 billion over 10 years.

Benoit Mariani (founder and CEO of Gait Up), Mark Lehew (SAP’s Sports & Entertainment Industry Business Unit), Andreas Imhoff (head of the Sports Orthopaedics Department from the hospital Klinikum rechts der Isar of the TUM), Rüdiger Westermann (Professor of Computer Science at TUM)