Enhancing recovery: the rise of medical technology in sports

Chloe Kent 12 May 2020 (Last Updated May 11th, 2020 13:08)

Physical health has always been a core issue in professional sports, a field where injuries are commonplace. Now, medical technology is being used to monitor and enhance athletes’ recovery. Chloe Kent takes a closer look.

Enhancing recovery: the rise of medical technology in sports
Manchester United Football Club uses the Vantage Galan 3T MRI from Canon Medical Systems UK for health surveillance. Credit: Manchester United Football Club

Smart gumshields are being used to keep on top of concussions

The high-contact nature of sports like rugby can lead to players becoming concussed. Over the years this can lead to serious consequences, like the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which is caused by repeated head injuries. CTE symptoms typically don’t appear until years after the injuries, but are known to afflict veteran players of contact sports like boxing, football and martial arts.

Now, smart mouthguards that can detect head injuries could help athletes who receive concussions on the pitch get more precise care in the moment, preventing more severe issues down the line.

A team of engineers and neurosurgeons at Cleveland Clinic spinoff Prevent Biometrics have developed the Prevent Impact Monitor Mouthguard (IMM), which can detect potential concussion-causing impacts in real time. The mouthguard measures the distance, angle and force of any blows to the head and lights up to signal when brain damage may have occurred during impact. The data is made available via Bluetooth on the Prevent Team mobile and web app for future review, and sideline personnel are able to see the results for all connected players on their teams in real time.

By putting the sensors of the impact-tracking device inside the mouth at the centre of the skull Prevent IMM and other devices like it, such as the OPRO+, get a much more accurate picture of the forces involved in a head injury than other devices. Trackers attached to helmets or the skin behind the ear, for example, can move independently to the rest of the head during impact, providing data which doesn’t always match the injury caused.

The Prevent IMM system has a 5% variance to reference, and has been issued nine US patents and 12 international patents.

Smart insoles are letting runners go faster and reduce injury risk

Poor form when running can do more than slow an athlete down – it can actively lead to injury. Think pulled hamstrings, shin splints and Achilles tendonitis. However, it’s hard to assess one’s own technique on the go and people often have no idea that the way they run is potentially harmful to their health.

Smart insoles could offer a solution. Biomechanics company Nurvv has developed Nurvv Run, shoe liners that contain biomechanical sensor technology designed to help runners improve their stance when exercising.

The insoles use 32 high-precision sensors to capture data about a runner’s cadence, step length, footstrike, pronation and balance to compose a complete picture of their running technique. Each sensor takes readings from the feet 1,000 times per second to deliver simple, actionable insights to the wearer.

The guidance tells them how to improve their form before, during and after each run to enhance their performance and reduce their risk of injury. Via a Running Health score on the Nurrv Run Coaching App, Nurvv users can identify potential problems before they lead to serious long-term health issues.

Nurvv also comes with two GPS trackers for users to chart their favourite running roots. The system can be connected to iOS, Android, the Apple Watch and ANT+ wearables.

MRI enables quick, quiet, quality sports imaging

Muscle, bone and joint injuries are understandably common for high-level athletes. When these are serious they can mean months off the pitch for incapacitated players, which can be damaging for the performance of the whole team.

Medical imaging is often used to assess the full extent of these injuries and give the most detailed evaluation possible of how to manage and treat them. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is currently one of the most common ways to examine sports-related images.

Manchester United Football Club uses the Vantage Galan 3T MRI from Canon Medical Systems UK for health surveillance. The system is designed to provide sharper, clearer images of injury sites to help football players and their doctors make decisions about how best to manage their treatment.

The system has been supplied to Manchester United through its partnership with Canon Medical, and allows injured footballers to enjoy quieter and more comfortable scans. This is down to Canon Medical’s Pianissimo and Pianissimo Zen technology, which significantly reduces noise in and around the MRI machine.

The Vantage Galan 3T offers a maximum gradient amplitude of 45 mT/m, a sew rate of 200 T/m/sec and employs propriety Pure RF Rx and Pure RF Tx technology dramatically increasing the signal to noise (SNR) of the machine.

The scans can be enhanced further with ForeSee View, a tool which previews slice planning in real time and is particularly useful for difficult to scan areas of the body, such as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The ACL is a knee joint ligament often torn in football due to the rapid changes in direction and sharp stops in movement made by players.

Manchester United’s MRI installation also includes EasyTech Cardiac’s CardioLine+. The application is designed to accurately and automatically identify all the right and left cardiac valvular planes, enabling cardiac examinations to be performed more easily as part of player’s daily routines.

Artificial intelligence is helping people manage musculoskeletal injuries

Athletes who have sustained significant injuries, be they professional or casual, may need to undergo physiotherapy to get back into shape. Digital therapeutics company Kaia has created smartphone-based physio treatments for a range of musculoskeletal (MSK) issues, meaning recovering sportspeople can carry out the necessary exercises from the comfort of their own home.

Kaia Health app users can watch video clips covering basic information on MSK pain, as well as mindfulness and muscle relaxation techniques, but the app really comes into its own via physiotherapy exercises.

Users carry out physiotherapy exercises at home while the app uses a 2D motion tracking algorithm via their smartphone’s front camera. The algorithm then gives them real-time audio feedback on their performance. A 2019 study found patients who used Kaia’s motion tracking technology reported significantly lower pain levels compared to patients treated with traditional physiotherapy.

A chat tool built into the app also allows users to talk directly to a physiotherapist if they’re still struggling with the algorithm’s instructions.