Messenger - Vol. 4, No. 3, Page T-3 1995 On Technology Biomechanics: Helping children and athletes improve A computer program being developed by the UD and the A.I. duPont Institute, a children's hospital in Wilmington, Del., may some day help surgeons correct disabilities that make walking difficult for children with cerebral palsy. Because it shows life-like, side-by-side images of the child's gait before and after surgery, the program should also help parents understand the possible consequences of various surgical procedures, reports James G. Richards, an associate professor in the University's College of Physical Education, Athletics and Recreation. "Before surgeons perform these procedures, they talk with the family about what to expect," Richards says. "But, it's sometimes difficult for parents to visualize how their child might walk after surgery. This new computer program will let them see what might happen." Children with cerebral palsy often cannot walk more than a few steps without resting because their movements tend to be spastic, and sometimes their leg muscles are improperly aligned, says Dr. Freeman Miller, director of the Gait Laboratory at the A.I. duPont Institute. Doctors can perform a variety of surgical procedures, such as repositioning thigh muscles, to improve a child's gait. But, surgeons must use their best judgment to determine exactly how much of a correction is needed. "Right now, these procedures are basically an art form," Miller says. "An experienced surgeon has to decide whether to move a muscle 10 degrees or 25 degrees, based on his or her prior experience with similar cases." To take the guesswork out of surgery, Miller's research team has already compiled data on about 30 children whose rectus muscles (those attached to the kneecap) were surgically repositioned. In each case, children were videotaped while walking before and after surgery. Information from sensors attached to different muscle groups was then fed into a database at the University. Thus far, Richards' research group has enough information to complete a program that will predict the impact of this surgical procedure. Additional programs are planned to simulate the effects of different types of surgery. "We hope that this technology will give surgeons the ability to make modifications before they go into the operating room, before they even make the first incision," Richards says. Through biomechanical analysis conducted as part of the University's Physical Education Program, athletes also can learn to move more efficiently and perhaps even avoid injuries. Reflective markers are placed on ice skaters, baseball players and other athletes, explains Richards. As the athlete jumps, runs or throws a ball, specialized hardware records the movement of each marker at a rate of 240 frames per second. Because the athlete's movements are captured simultaneously by several different cameras, a three-dimensional image is generated. Data from such images is then analyzed at a workstation. Software developed by University researchers calculates, for instance, the amount of stress each joint must endure at any given moment, or the speed of a fast pitch. Working with student researchers, Richards has developed a "composite" graph that shows the force typically required to pitch a baseball effectively. The graph was developed by recording and then analyzing the movements of 30 different pitchers. "If pitchers come into the Biomechanics Laboratory and their pitch falls somewhere within the normal range on our graph, then we know that they're in pretty good shape," Richards explains. "If they're way outside the norm, that almost always indicates that they're predisposed to injury." Similar technologies allow University researchers to analyze the performance of various types of footwear. "We work with major shoe manufacturers on a regular basis to help them improve their designs," Richards says. "When it comes to athletic performance, shoes can really make a difference."