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Release: Immediate

UI study examines prevention of knee injury in female athletes

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa women's basketball team is working to improve its record this season, but not just in the win-loss column.

That's because the basketball team, along with gymnastics and soccer players under the direction of the women's athletic department, are trying to reduce athletic injury by participating in a UI College of Engineering Iowa Spine Research Center study to examine the relationship between muscle agility and knee injury in female athletes. UI researchers say that the study is a response to coaches who have noticed a relatively high occurrence of knee injuries in female athletes worldwide.

Leif Hasselquist, project researcher and a doctoral student in biomedical engineering in the UI College of Engineering, says the fact that female athletes in general suffer a higher incidence of knee injuries compared to male athletes influenced the group to look at the role of balance in preventing injury. During the test, subjects stand on a wooden device resembling a doctor's scale. Wires are taped to the subject's legs to measure electrical impulses emitted by the muscles. Then, with the athlete standing on one leg, a hidden system of weights suddenly is dropped, pulling a strap draped across the athlete's upper body.

The athletes are instructed to keep standing, even though the weight drop throws them off balance, says Jennifer Ocif, master's degree candidate in biomedical engineering and a member of the UI women's soccer club. "In women, many knee injuries occur when the athlete doesn't expect it, through a sudden stop or change of direction."

The project's principal investigators, Malcolm H. Pope, professor of biomedical engineering and Iowa Spine Research Center director, and Dr. John P. Albright, orthopedic surgeon and director of sports medicine services at UI Hospitals and Clinics, are also using a Nintendo-like computer device to evaluate how well muscle response can be learned. When a target appears on a computer screen, the subject must move her body quickly to duplicate the move. Pope says that the device shows researchers how fast trunk and knee muscles can be contracted.

"Is balance or agility training a good way to prevent injury? Can we train muscles to react faster? Will stronger muscles and faster reaction times prevent injury? Those are some of the things we're trying to determine," Ocif says.

Ocif notes that preliminary findings suggest that athletes' leg muscle responses can be improved through regular balance training sessions as short as 10 to 15 minutes in length.

UI Women's Basketball Coach Angie Lee says of the study, "It's very significant that this kind of research be done. I can't believe how many young females this (knee injury) happens to. This study is something that I'm extremely interested in."

The study is being supported by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Iowa. The Iowa Spine Research Center involves a variety of researchers, including engineers, economists, pharmacologists, surgeons, epidemiologists, research scientists and students, engaged in assessing clinical effectiveness and outcome in diagnosing and treating spinal diseases and providing guidance in spinal research and patient care.