Tracking Back Pain

By Matt Hawkins
October 7, 2014

Ongoing biomedical research by Bradley engineering and physical therapy faculty is giving students hands-on experience with cross-disciplinary study. The research on lower back pain could lead to earlier diagnosis of pain and more effective treatment.

Students from mechanical engineering and health science are measuring lower back muscle properties of people in the Peoria area, with an emphasis on those suffering from ankylosing spondylitis. AS is a rare chronic condition similar to rheumatoid arthritis. Research explores underlying conditions of musculoskeletal diseases in an effort to develop biomarkers that will diagnose issues earlier.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially working with engineering students,” said Katie Emrich ’15, a health science major from Hampshire, Illinois. “I never thought I’d be doing this kind of research with real patients because most undergrads don’t get to work with people.”

The collaborative research began in 2010, when mechanical engineering professor Dr. Kalyani Nair teamed with physical therapy professor Joe Kelly. Their research continues previous work by Nair and University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria professor Dr. Alfonse Masi on human resting muscle tone (HRMT).  

Students use the latest development in tissue measurement technology to conduct research, a department-owned MyotonPro. The device measures elasticity and stiffness of muscle tissue with a gentle tap. Additionally, Nair, Kelly and faculty from mechanical and electrical engineering have submitted grant proposals in hopes of acquiring ultrasound elastography equipment for future research.

Beyond the lab, students and faculty have been busy preparing papers and presentations from their work. They have published three journal articles, presented at four conferences and await publication of two more papers. 

“They have the opportunity to get research exposure they might not get otherwise. It’s complimentary to any grad-level health science profession,” Kelly said. “I hope they will be interested in contributing to clinical research because the best ideas come out of the clinic.”

Students took the initiative to conduct research on their own. Once trained on the equipment, they coordinated data-gathering sessions with subjects and analysis with limited faculty oversight. That freedom and responsibility boosted the young researchers’ confidence.

“We’re definitely empowered,” Emrich said. “It feels good to know faculty trust us. I didn’t realize how rewarding it would be to have professors trust us with that much research.”

This project has also sparked the inquisitive sides of its supervising faculty. It deepened Nair’s biomedical background and opened new avenues for Kelly to explore new ground in physical therapy.

“I like applying what I learned from an engineering standpoint,” Nair said. “When you relate it to this project, you see the value of the practical application.”