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Biomechanics – get to know your body’s movements and avoid injury

Think about all the movements you do every day: walking, climbing stairs, typing, turning doorknobs and lifting. Your bones, muscles and joints all work together to make your body an amazingly movable machine.

Like any machine, your body can suffer some wear and tear. It needs regular care and maintenance to keep moving with ease. Scientists are currently studying the mechanical movements of our bodies to help us be as strong, flexible and mobile as possible throughout our lives. This type of research is called biomechanics. These studies are finding that the way you move-including walking, standing and bending-can affect your future mobility and overall health.

Body movements involve a number of factors, including force, balance, gravity and motion. The main moving parts of your body include the solid bones, the joint tissues that link bones together, and the muscles that attach to your bones. Your body has about 200 bones and more than 600 muscles. These parts all work together to help you move throughout the day. Some studies of biomechanics have already led to better ways to prevent muscle and joint injuries in kids during sports and play, and to help older people stay more mobile and independent. Some researchers are working to develop better artificial joints, while others have devised improved treatments for movement disorders such as cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.

Joints are one of the most common sources of problems and pain. Certain joints such as the shoulder can move in many directions, but others, like the knee joint, can only bend one way. Any movements outside a joint's natural range might cause injury. One important structure that usually garners much attention is the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), which connects the thigh bone to the shin bone. When it stretches or tears, some people hear or feel a "pop." Athletes who need to make sudden stops or quickly change direction-as in basketball, tennis and soccer-are at a particularly high risk for damaging their ACL.

Biomechanics researchers use "motion capture" tools to study how people move. Reflective markers-each about the size of a coin-are attached to the skin or clothing over people's joints and muscles to make it easy to visualize their movements on a computer screen. A series of cameras can then track how people run, jump, walk and twist. Feeding these data into computers allows scientists to create 3-D animations of full-body motions.

Using this technology, researchers have identified certain movements that make some people more likely to injure their ACL. For instance, athletes who allow their knees to collapse inward when landing from a jump are at an elevated risk for ACL tears. Once at-risk people are identified, coaches and physical therapists can develop exercises to help them strengthen certain muscles and learn to land and pivot in healthier, safer ways.
Motion-tracking tools are also being used to understand how older people might avoid injury from falls by modifying their movements to adapt to unexpected environments, such as a slippery floor. Falls can be serious at any age, but are especially a concern for older adults, who are more likely to break a bone in the process. Each year, more than 1.6 million older Americans go to emergency rooms for fall-related injuries.

Exercises that improve your balance and strengthen your muscles can help to prevent falls. It's also possible for people to be trained to avoid falls if they practice walking over unstable-but safe-surfaces in a laboratory. With some practice, they can adapt their gait and remember how to keep body posture upright in response to disturbances in a new environment.

Biomechanics can also be used to guide treatments for movement problems. In some tests, computer models look at how hip joints are stressed when someone walks or travels up and down stairs, which can help in analyzing body movements that might be a risk for future conditions. Eventually, these computer models might help doctors choose appropriate treatments and figure out which patients could benefit from surgery.

Finally, people with cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis could also benefit from biomechanical analysis by looking at how well each patient walks to help determine how to best address their issues. From there, physical therapists can help patients strengthen muscles and improve balance and coordination as deficits are identified by the analysis. Brain activation also plays a part, as identifying which parts of the brain are active during movement can lead to a better understanding of what's leading to the problem.

Muscle strengthening and proper joint alignment are important for just about anyone who wants to stay flexible and mobile. With technology like this, physical therapists and other health-care professionals can better help ensure more people are moving properly and with a movement that reduces their risk of any type of future injury or condition.

If you're interested in these types of services or if you'd like more information on biomechanics, see your local physical therapist. Also remember that your physical therapist can help you with any aches or pains in your muscles or joints, and your best option is to always see them first if any problems come up.

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