SRU acquires portable biomechanics lab


Professor attaching sensors toa  student

From left Chris Hughes, Slippery Rock University professor of physical therapy, applies sensors to Jack Mettus, a graduate student majoring in physical therapy from Valencia, that are part of a portable biomechanics lab that SRU purchased. Photo by Dilmini De Silva, a communication and digital media production major from Sri Lanka.

March 6, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Through the study of biomechanics, health-care professionals learn about the structure and function of biological systems, or more precisely, the movement of the human body. So it makes sense to have technology that is capable of moving to meet people in their functional environments and measure their movement.

Slippery Rock University recently became one of the few institutions in the region to purchase a Noraxon myoMETRICS Portable Lab, a product billed as a "biomechanics lab in a box." The lab is used to help health-care professionals mitigate risk and optimize performance for everyone from warehouse employees to professional athletes. Purchased for $75,000 by SRU's College of Health, Environment and Science for use in the doctor of physical therapy program, the Noraxon unit and software will help students better understand the movements of the human body, gather data that will be used in research and enhance diagnosis and prescription for clinical practice.

"We hear from employers that our students have an advantage when they are familiar with equipment that they may use in the field," said Jerry Chmielewski, dean of the College of Health, Environment and Science. "Acquiring this new portable lab is a wonderful opportunity for our students to combine the latest technology with traditional methods that are used in a clinical setting."

"When you talk about the validity you are getting on the floor, compared to an artificial lab environment, I'll take that any day," said Chris Hughes, SRU professor of physical therapy, who acknowledged that a typical biomechanics laboratory setting is an elaborate, sterile environment where people simulate activities in front of wall-mounted cameras. "If I can capture someone in their natural environment, it's a difference between looking at an animal in the zoo versus in the wild. They are not going to act the same way."

Hughes has firsthand knowledge of the benefits of the Noraxon lab, which was released in November 2016 as the world's first field-ready biomechanics research lab. Hughes uses the same Noraxon system for his private consulting work and he recommended that SRU purchase it for use by the students. He has worked the last 25 years with large companies such as Giant Eagle, a regional supermarket chain, to measure their exposures for people working in warehouse and distribution centers, improving safety, preventing injuries and returning previously injured employees to work, all of which helps save companies millions of dollars in workers' compensation expenses and helps drives productivity.

"No one really looks at how people truly move in the warehouse; it's all about production" said Hughes, who has worked with clients that can have a warehouse employee who moves 1,500 cases, weighing 20 to 70 pounds, each day, all while walking as much as five miles during a shift. "If we say, 'Keep your back straight and bend your knees,' and I film people for 20 minutes and no one actually does it, what good is that principle? You have to be able to capture real motion and critically evaluate the motion against the theoretical principle."

Hughes works with clients to implement his trademarked "Lift Like a Pro" curriculum, which is followed by their employees and assessed by their supervisors to ensure that they are using the proper techniques. Hughes also analyzes motor mechanics to create a baseline model for how employees move, because he said return-to-work evaluations should be driven by objective criteria based on the individual's range of motion or multi-joint function and not necessarily a time period of recovery predicted by a physician.

"We're just diving into this full-body capture because everything I've done previously has always been video-based and qualitative," Hughes said. "Now that I have the equipment, we can drill down to a lot more information. This has a lot of potential for functional capacity. You can start overlaying symmetry values, so you can look at hip and knee range of motion and paraspinal activity of the muscle, and I can coach people to be symmetrical and safe."

The lab is comprised of a suite of 3D motion capture sensors, including 16 inertial measurement units and eight electromyography sensors, or EMGs, that are electronic devices that are affixed to a person's body to transmit data wirelessly and in real time. A camera allows users to view both a video of the person's movement as well as the correlating skeletal movement and waves of muscular activity from the EMGs. The entire self-contained unit weighs about 50 pounds and can be transported as carry-on luggage.

In addition to clients in blue-collar industry, Hughes has tested the equipment with athletes, some of whom have undergone other performance assessments, but the lab is an emerging product so comprehensive that Hughes said it has potential in a variety of settings.

Once SRU faculty and students have access to the lab, they will be able to use the system in the classroom and with patients at the Slippery Rock Pro Bono Physical Therapy, an on-campus clinic that provides free services to the public. There are also plans for SRU to partner with other research institutions to share the data collected for the Noraxon system through granted-funded projects.

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