Injured knee? How a ‘noise’ device could speed its recovery

One of the most common injuries in sports involves knees, which are notoriously slow and difficult to heal. But a University of Calgary researcher is working on a way to help damaged knees heal more quickly and prevent re-injury.

Some of the most common knee injuries involve a torn ACL, the anterior cruciate ligament, which is the main ligament in the knee that connects the thigh and shin bones and that keeps the joint stable.

ACL tears are common in any sport that require jumping, or shifts in weight, such as basketball, soccer, or skiing. Calgary resident Adrienne Kline tore her ACL playing volleyball.

“I went up to hit the volleyball and when I came down I landed on someone’s foot and basically my knee kind of buckled under me,” she remembers.

Kline enrolled in a study by researcher Payam Zandiyeh, who is testing a new device at the school’s Schulich School of Engineering. The device is a cuff that features tiny vibrating disc transmitters placed around the knee to boost signals to the brain.

After knee injuries, the nerve impulses along the knee no longer properly signal the brain of instability and imbalance, or what doctors call “proprioception.” Zandiyeh says that lack of signalling is probably one of the big reasons for the high rate of ACL re-injury.

The tiny transmitters he’s developed works on a concept called “stochastic resonance” to add “noise” to boost the signal to the brain during instability and prompt it to restore equilibrium.

The vibrations are so faint, they occur below the threshold of consciousness, says Kline, who reports she can barely feel the device working when she’s wearing it.

“It’s undetectable really, at a very sort of superficial level. It’s something that is background noise and doesn’t really interfere,” she says.

Zandiyeh hopes to eventually use the transmitters to create a knee brace that would be worn full-time during recovery to help speed recovery and prevent further injury. It could also be used to prevent injuries in the first place for athletes taking part in skiing, hockey, soccer, football, or others.

“They can wear knee sleeves equipped with these vibration stimulators and hopefully their chance of injury will be reduced,” said Zandiyeh.


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