Spine Research Institute partnership aims to prevent back injuries

By Mike Lampl, Research and Grants Director

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, back injuries account for nearly 20% of all injuries and illnesses in the workplace. Because of the prevalence of back-related injuries, BWC has been devoted to preventing and treating them for many years.

In the mid-1980s, leadership at BWC approached researchers at the Ohio State University’s Spine Research Institute (SRI) about doing research on musculoskeletal disorders. From there, a partnership that would span decades was born. Since then, BWC and the SRI have partnered on leading edge research projects to treat and prevent back injuries in the workplace.

The team at the SRI, led by Dr. William Marras, has received multiple research grants from the Division of Safety and Hygiene. They developed the Lumbar Motion Monitor (LMM), the first wearable sensor for the spine, now used worldwide. The LMM monitors the motion of a person’s lower back. Their motions are then compared to databases to assess injury risk or quantify their level of impairment.

Using the LMM, researchers went on to develop a set of lifting guidelines employers could use to facilitate transitional work and evaluate lifting tasks. By using trends in injury data, they identified jobs that were likely to result in back injuries. They then looked at the forces on the body while people lifted and performed actions on the job. This data was used to create a set of easy to use guidelines for employers, medical professionals and transitional work providers. 

Researchers at the SRI have also worked closely with our Medical division, analyzing BWC injury data. They measured the effectiveness of spinal fusion surgery for patients with musculoskeletal disorders. Their work helped to change the guidelines for treatment in the state of Ohio to provide injured workers more effective treatment.  

Today, they are working to understand all the factors that go into finding an effective treatment. Often, it is difficult to understand the exact injury, so treatment is done on a trial and error basis that eventually leads to the patient having spinal surgery. The surgery is costly and only has a 50% success rate. By phenotyping back injuries and collecting a multitude of data on the way patients move, they plan to develop a database that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify the best treatment.

The future is all about prevention. “The best way to treat a back injury is to never have it,” said Dr. Marras. Eventually, they hope to use the database to prevent back injuries from occurring. By looking at the combinations of physical and psychosocial factors that contribute to injuries, we can better understand who will get injured and prevent it from happening.

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