Dr. Kawchuk explains that it is well understood that individuals with back and spine problems contract their muscles differently and at different times than those without issues. These distinctions are difficult to measure in the settings where they occur - at the office, on the construction site, in the home, etc. "We can't always get our research equipment into the places where people work, where they do their sports or wherever they have their back problems but we can take certain things into those work environments, record what happens and then re-play it in our robot" says Dr. Kawchuk. The robot that Dr. Kawchuk is referring to is the flight simulator, something his team discovered was not only useful for training pilots and developing video games.
With the flight simulator, movements common to these real life situations can be recreated in a controlled setting and studied more closely. Researchers like Dr. Kawchuk can then break down the individual muscle movements and responses to determine if the movement is optimal or not. The results may indicate a weakness in a particular muscle or group of muscles. The robot can also make recommendations on the types of movements that could help build up the weakened muscles. If the weak muscles are strengthened, back pain symptoms in many cases are eliminated.
Some people can be treated effectively as a group with a broad treatment approach applied to all, however, in many cases, an individualized treatment strategy is required. Dr. Kawchuk's flight simulator can assist with a tailored exercise plan. Of course, this type of technology does not lend itself well to a clinical application due to cost, availability and size but it could suggest other methods or external testing techniques for certain groups of patients. For example, patients who are identified as potentially benefitting from an exercise therapy to strengthen muscles could be referred to a research centre for individual testing to determine muscle weakness and develop a comprehensive exercise approach.
We are still a long ways off from having ways from developing a clinical application but this research certainly highlights the importance of a patient focused, individualized approach to health care.