University of Waterloo researcher Naveen Chandrashekar has developed a unique knee injury simulator; the first in the world, to understand how to prevent anterior cruciate ligament tears commonly known as ACL injuries—one of the easiest parts of the body to damage.
Every year, more than 100,000 young athletes tear the ligament surrounding the knee and require surgery. Half of them go on to develop osteoarthritis, resulting in more than $1 billion in health care costs overall.
Until now, little has been known about the cause of these injuries. Dr. Chandrashekar has created a robotic system that applies loads to the knees of cadavers in the same way that athletes move when running or jumping. The system captures and digitizes the data to understand the anatomic factors, muscle forces and knee kinematics that predispose it to ACL injury. It is now possible to view the difference, for example, between landing on an elongated versus a flexed knee.
"The assumption has been that the problem is with the knee joint," explains Dr. Chandrashekar. "But we've found that muscles related to hip flexion play a major role. If forces on the hip are high, it puts a higher load on the ACL, a relationship that hadn't been identified before."
With this knowledge, it will be possible to design training regimes that prevent ACL damage instead of repairing injuries through surgery. Researchers are 3-4 years away from developing practical training programs to protect an athlete's knees and improve their performance. Over the longer term, this research will help the entire population—especially youth in their mid-teens, who are at greatest risk of injury. Eventually, physical education teachers and amateur coaches will be able to use these training techniques when coaching young athletes, saving billions of dollars in preventable health care costs.