Why are some athletes injury prone? Timothy Burkhart’s research may offer clues
From each according to their abilities, to each according to their knees – and their hips.
Timothy Burkhart biomechanical research aims to help prevent injuries and quickly rehabilitate them when they do occur – in college athletes and the rest of us.
Growing up, as he watched NBA small forward Grant Hill go down with another ankle injury, or point guard Derrick Rose tear either knee again, Burkhart wondered: why some athletes are prone to injury?
“It’s always amazed me that these athletes who have unlimited resources to stay healthy – the best doctors, the best coaches – some of them just can’t,” says Burkhart, assistant professor of orthopedic biomechanics. at the University of Toronto Medical School. Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE). “And unfortunately for some of them it was the end of their careers. So you have to wonder why.
“Is it a certain way that they move?” Was there a vulnerability there that went undetected? »
Burkhart, who directs the Biomechanics of Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Lab at the U of T – in collaboration with orthopedic surgeons from the University of Toronto Orthopedic Sports Medicine Group and his team of students graduates – engages in what might be called kinetic detective work. Which parts are most likely to fail, on whom and why?
The hips and knees are two components of the human frame that are particularly prone to failure. Burkhart is examining both joints in studies that are currently running simultaneously in his lab.
Hip research focuses on what is called femoroacetabular impingement syndrome (FAIS). In this disorder, which recently derailed the career of promising Leafs goaltender Ian Scott, the constant stress between the femur and the pelvis causes additional bone growth, limiting movement and generating pain. Burkhart wants to better understand why this is happening and prevent it from happening to so many people. To that end, he and his team recruit athletes from a variety of sports that rely on intense hip action, such as hockey, basketball and lacrosse.
By the time an athlete reaches the college level of competition in these sports, they will have performed the same movement thousands of times. A slight biomechanical hitch in their shape can get worse over time. It’s the kind of thing that’s traditionally hard to detect. But Burkhart brings cutting-edge tools to the job.
In the lab, athletes simulate the game movements that put such fierce pressure on the hip – sprints and cuts, or butterfly maneuvers. Motion capture technology can generate computer models that accurately estimate forces on the hip, a non-invasive way to retrieve data that previously required intramuscular probes.
But even the best simulations can only get you so far – athletes just don’t move the same way in the lab as they do in competition. So there is a second dimension to Burkhart’s analysis.
“We’re really lucky to have a markerless motion tracking system,” he says. “We can set up cameras and film the athletes doing exactly what they would do as they play.”
The combination of the two techniques – capturing force and motion data in the lab and analyzing videotape of players on the pitch – produces a level of analysis of unprecedented granularity.
For reasons no one yet fully understands, FAIS hip injuries tend to be common among female athletes. That’s part of why Burkhart is recruiting only women for the first trial of his hip study, which is a joint venture with Women’s College Hospital.
The same kinds of analyzes are being done in knee research – but this time with athletes of both sexes.
Burkhart’s data may provide insights that we have never discovered because it asks questions that have never really been asked. Are college athletes playing a different game than weekend warriors? Do they move very slightly differently? Burkhart will compare the athletes to a control group, “our everyday healthy population that is relatively active.”
What he learns should help both populations – both on the preventive side and on the rehabilitation side.
And that’s finally the end of the two-part game from Burkhart’s lab: early detection of vulnerabilities that could lead to injuries down the road and evidence-based recommendations for improving rehabilitation and return-to-activity strategies.
“We want to help athletes prolong their careers,” he says, “but the bigger goal is for everyone to prolong their lifelong mobility, and live and play pain-free and healthy.”