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Vibration Technology Developed to Diagnose Back Pain

Spine model

(Michael Dorausch, Flickr)

11 March 2016. Researchers at University of Alberta adapted engineering technologies using vibrations to develop a new way to diagnose spinal problems causing back pain.  The team led by Alberta physical therapy professor Greg Kawchuk reported results of tests comparing its technology to MRI in today’s (11 March) issue of the journal Scientific Reports.

Kawchuk and colleagues from University of Southern Denmark in Odense are seeking better ways of revealing structural problems in spines that cause lower back pain. The authors cite data showing from 6 to 15 percent of people experience initial episodes of back pain, with recurrence rates as high as 80 percent. The economic burden of this condition is estimated in the U.S. alone to reach $625 billion.

Current diagnostic methods for back pain use reports from patients on their ability (or inability) to function normally, or static visualization technologies such as MRI, short for magnetic resonance imaging. MRI by itself, however, gives no indication of an individual’s ability to function. “While an MRI shows us a picture of the spine,” says Kawchuk in a university statement, “it doesn’t show how the spine is working. It’s like taking a picture of a car to see if the car is capable of starting.”

As a supplement or even an alternative to MRI, Kawchuk’s team in Edmonton, Alberta designed a technique that adapts an engineering technology known as structural health monitoring that sends vibrations through enormous objects like bridges to miniature electronic components to test for their structural stability. Vibrations sent through the objects are recorded and measured against expected results, with variations from expected values indicating potential problems.

Techniques developed by the Alberta researchers adjust the original structural health monitoring technology to make it applicable to more complex and variable human biology. The non-invasive method uses a device resting on the back and sending gentle vibrations directly into the spine. Sensors in the device measure responses of the spine to vibrations, with software analyzing the responses.

To test the technology, researchers recruited identical twins from a registry in Denmark that earlier collected data on back pain. Some 10 twin pairs were recruited from an original pool of 221 pairs, and given MRI scans of their lumbar (lower) back regions. An independent radiologist then reviewed the twins’ MRI images to identify cases where the spines essentially matched between the pairs, and where differences occur, which could be attributed to injuries or accidents. The MRI scans show of the 10 pairs of twins, 4 pairs had essentially identical spines, while 6 pairs showed important differences.

The team then applied the vibrations and took measurements, called frequency response functions, from the lumbar regions of the twins. The results show the 4 twin pairs with largely identical spinal structures recorded similar vibration responses, while the 6 pairs with differences in their spines reported frequency responses with measurable differences.

“By studying and testing vibration responses in identical twins,” notes Kawchuk, “we were able to demonstrate that structural changes within the spine alter its vibration response.” The proof-of-concept study, say the authors, shows the feasibility of structural health monitoring as a diagnostic tool for diagnosing back problems.

Kawchuk is co-founder of VibeDx Diagnostic Corp., an Edmonton company that licenses the vibration technology from the university. VibeDx is applying the technology to tools for pre-surgical tests of spinal stability as well as follow-up tests after back surgery.

The following brief (8 second) video shows the spinal vibration device in action

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