It’s not uncommon for athletes to tear their anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL), a knee injury that requires a stint in physical therapy. Dustin Grooms, an associate professor of athletic training in the Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions, is concerned about the high number of athletes who return to the court or field and injure their ACL again.
To improve recovery outcomes for patients, Grooms and colleagues are looking to neuroscience. Advances in imaging techniques have shown that the brain changes after the body experiences physical injuries, he said.
The brain uses a sense called proprioception to understand where the body is in space. Conventional therapy focuses on having injured patients use their visual system — such as by looking at the knee during exercises — to recover. This strategy creates a disconnect, however, when the patient is back in an athletic setting and cannot constantly use visual cues to coordinate neurological and skeletal systems, Grooms explained.
Grooms and Ohio University colleague Janet Simon, an assistant professor of athletic training, have been studying different therapy techniques, such as stroboscopic glasses or virtual reality goggles, that provide patients with a much richer environment of visual and sensory feedback as they perform physical exercises in the clinic. These strategies are designed to train the brain to continue to use proprioception to coordinate physical movement after injury. This potentially will rewire the brain for more efficient motor control to improve rehabilitation outcomes and avoid reinjury, Grooms said.
Although ACL tears are a common problem for athletes, military professionals also can be susceptible to these injuries. The U.S. Department of Defense recently awarded a $750,000 grant to Grooms, Simon and colleagues to study how their understanding of neuroscience can improve recovery outcomes for these individuals.
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