Updated: Nov 11, 2020
National Biomechanics Day is celebrated annually on April 10. We celebrate Amy Whited, our biomechanist, every day since we are so lucky to have her on staff. Even though we know what she does is impressive, we would never be able to quite articulate her job and also the world of biomechanics overall. What better way to help us understand and describe the field than to talk to Amy herself.
1. In your own words, can you describe the field of biomechanics and explain how it relates to sports/sports medicine/sports injury prevention? The term biomechanics combines the prefix bio, meaning “life”, with mechanics, the branch of physics concerned with the study of motion. In other words, biomechanics is the science of how and why living organisms are able to move the way that they do. Traditionally, biomechanics is divided into two areas: kinematics and kinetics. Kinematics describes motion (think-position, time, velocity, and acceleration) without taking into account what caused that motion. Kinetics, on the other hand, does exactly that. It is the study of the forces that cause motion.
Research in biomechanics addresses a broad range of topics from the cellular level to the body as a whole. Sports biomechanics, of course, studies human motion during exercise and in sports. Information of this kind can be applied to many in our field especially athletes, coaches, personal trainers, physical therapists, and physicians. Detailed biomechanical analyses can be used to assess athletes for potentially injurious or inefficient movement strategies that increase the risk of injury and impede performance. Results can be used to coach athletes on techniques to execute movement more efficiently and recommend training programs for strength and flexibility.
2. Do you think having you, a biomechanist, on staff sets The Micheli Center apart from other similar sports injury prevention and performance programs? Why do you think this role is especially important for what we offer? Having a biomechanist like myself on staff enables us to offer our trainees evidence-based strategies to help reduce the personal risk of injury while enhancing sports performance. Unlike similar sports injury prevention and performance programs, we have the ability to conduct 3D motion analysis sessions with our trainees. Results from these analyses can be used for injury prevention, enhancing sports performance, and tracking rehabilitation progression.
The 3D motion analysis technology works like this: we put a series of small retroreflective markers on bony landmarks of the body from head to toe (usually 30-50 in total). Then, with all of the markers on, the exercise or sport movement of interest is performed in the capture area. We have the pitchers pitch and the golfers swing a golf club. Ten high-speed infrared cameras surround our data collection area to capture kinematics. Simultaneously, kinetics are measured by two force platforms embedded into the ground in the center of the data collection area. Unlike an average video camera, our cameras emit infrared light and only record reflected light. The infrared light causes the markers on the body to become reflective in the eyes of our cameras and this enables us to track how the bones move. While the subject is performing the movement, the infrared cameras capture 2D images of the marker positions. Up to 480 frames per second are captured from each camera and sent to our computer in real-time. The 2D images from each camera are then overlapped to compute the 3D positions of the markers throughout the movement. Using our software, we create a 3D model of the subject’s skeleton to calculate kinematics. Our force platforms measure the ground’s reaction forces exerted into the body when someone strikes them. As the foot strikes the ground, it exerts a force into the ground and the ground exerts an equal and opposite force into the foot (Think Newton: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).
3D motion analysis allows us to quantify crucial pieces of information about how the body moves that the human eye cannot detect. We use the kinematic and kinetic results to identify if there is a potential risk for injury or if the subject can optimize the efficiency of movements. These data are especially useful in conjunction with clinical range of motion and strength and flexibility measurements. This allows us to identify areas of the body that may be lacking strength and/or flexibility and thus, impeding one’s ability to move efficiently and pain-free.
3. The Micheli Center offers an internship for students currently enrolled in a biomechanics or similar program, specifically with our 3D analysis systems. What will these students take away from this internship and what path could it lead them down? Our 3D motion analysis interns will learn how to operate our 3D motion capture system and learn how to process the data independently. They will also assist me in leading 3D motion analysis data collections for both research and 3D services. As opportunities arise, they will have the ability to develop research projects for presentations and publications. Overall, this learning opportunity includes participating in all aspects of the biomechanical research process: design, data collection, processing, and analysis.
A graduate degree in biomechanics can provide a number of various career paths, depending on someone’s interests. Since much of the focus of biomechanics is on research, many of the jobs in this field will be in research facilities. Laboratories in hospitals and universities study topics such as, but not limited to: human and animal gait; balance; performance; and the causes, treatment, and prevention of disease/injury. That’s not to say that there aren’t other avenues that apply to more practical applications. Sports and exercise science are two fields where innovative ideas could be applied to develop solutions and products that will help people move more safely and effectively. A biomechanist may be able to find work at companies producing athletic footwear, apparel, and equipment to help individuals train and perform more efficiently. Another focus could be on collegiate or professional sports teams to analyze movement for scouting purposes or sports performance tracking. The ergonomics industry is another practical field of application for biomechanics. Here, the goal is to eliminate discomfort and risk of injury in the workplace. While runners will benefit from scientifically designed sneakers to run more efficiently, office workers will also benefit from ergonomically designed desk chairs to lessen backache.
4. Can you briefly explain what your job entails? A major part of my job is to maintain and operate our 3D motion capture equipment. I collect, process, and analyze biomechanical data for TMC’s 3D services and for BCH Orthopedics/Sports Medicine research. For our 3D pitching and golf swing analyses, I team up with our injury prevention specialists to summarize the biomechanical findings into a detailed but easy-to-understand report to follow up with our trainees. Our hope is to develop services like this for other sports so that we can help more athletes maintain a healthy future. On the research side of things, I contribute to the interpretation and discussion of biomechanical results and often prepare abstracts, presentations and, manuscripts. I also collaborate with the TMC and BCH staff to modify and develop new 3D protocols and analyses to continue our mission to discover new ways to prevent, assess, and treat sports injuries.
5. What is the most challenging aspect of your job? For me, the most challenging aspect of my job is also one of the most rewarding. While I frequently write detailed, jargon-filled scientific documents about biomechanics, I must remember that biomechanics is still somewhat of a mystery to many people outside of the field. When I am discussing 3D results with trainees and their families, it can be challenging to switch gears. Communicating key pieces of information with terminology that is easy to follow is extremely important to me. It’s vital that our trainees understand what their 3D results mean so that they are able to leave knowledgeable and motivated to maintain a healthy and active future. I also think it’s important to stimulate curiosity and excitement about biomechanics. It’s rewarding for me to see the looks of wonder in not only the trainees’ eyes, but in the eyes of their family and coaches as well when they absorb what the 3D motion analysis yields.
National Biomechanics Day is April 10th, in honor of that I’m hoping this post expands awareness and appreciation of the science and benefits of biomechanics!