Many of us are aware of how it feels to suffer from any kind of back discomfort. However, because it’s so widespread but caused by a variety of variables–and subjective to the patient, it’s difficult for doctors to pinpoint how to manage it.

Researchers in medical and engineering of Ohio State University want to help with this by using the use of a digital health system that will improve decision-making on treatment options for back pain, they explained. The solution is based on motion-sensing technology that helps evaluate low back function and determine the next steps to take for treatment, they added.

Researchers from the laboratory under the direction of William Marras, executive director of the Spine Research Institute at Ohio State used the self-reports of patients about disability and pain together with data collected from a wearable motion sensing system to assess the function of the low back. The study was focused on patients who had lumbar-fusion surgery, however it can be applied to other sufferers of pain too. The researchers discovered an inconsistency between how patients expressed their feelings about their pain and their movements as well as the actual functional improvements or lack thereof which they experienced following their procedure, they said. For instance, even though patients reported that their pain had decreased following six weeks, quantitative measures were not able to detect any real improved function in their spine up to six months following surgery, they noted.

“You aren’t able to inquire about how people think about the back,” Marras noted in an article published by Ohio State News. “For back pain, people are asked to rate their feelings on a scale of one to 10. However, since there aren’t any pain receptors in your disc, what does it mean?”

How Wearable Technology Work

The lab of Marras is studying everyday forces that live in the spine for many years and has invented one of the very original wearable back sensor over 30 years ago to study how the movements that people make when carrying out a variety of tasks in various settings impact the back. In recent times, his group has retrofitted these devices using commercially-available chips – typically found in mobile devices–that can locate people who are in the space.

The motion-sensing device the team designed is named “Conity,” and it includes a lumbar motion monitor that is equipped with chips that are that are mounted on the top back or waist straps. The sensors record an individual’s three-dimensional “motion signature” when they perform various standard actions.

The combination of technologies will provide quantitative information on not just movement range as well as movement speed and acceleration. In fact, it’s information about these movement that Marras’s study has proven to be more useful in helping comprehend how the spine works, he explained.

Researchers have said that by incorporating the information from their study and others using the technology into a rapidly growing national database of patient spine function scores as well as other medical information that researchers around all over the world will be able to use a more objective tool for medical decision-making for patients undergoing surgery according to them.

“We are working on an efficient computer platform can be distributed across the nation,” Marras said in the article. “Our goal is that through working with universities across the country in the future, we’ll be able create a database large enough to enable us to employ machine learning and artificial intelligence to break through and figure out the most crucial aspects.”

Students studying surgery patients

One hundred twenty-one lumbar fusion patients were part of the study. The patients were screened once prior to surgery and five times following surgery for forward and backward bends, side-toside bending, and spine rotation.

In order to determine their functional scores, the researchers evaluated the individual data with a composite measurement using data in healthy “control” patients. Participants also answered questionnaires to measure their disability, pain as well as fear-avoidance behavior and their quality of life at the beginning and after surgery. Researchers said.

Due to the disparity in the time when patients first began to report pain relief and when the results actually demonstrated spinal improvement, the researchers concluded that functional tests that are objective could provide a better idea of the time it’s safe for patients with spinal fusion to resume regular activities following their operation, Marras observed.

“Our technology allows us to analyze, first whether or not you’re suffering from an back issue, as well as secondly what’s the status? Does it improve or is it getting more severe, or is it getting worse or out of the norm?” he said. “When you’re doing harm to the back and especially discs, it’s difficult to know the exact time the damage takes place due to the fact that there are very small nerve receptors within the disc. It’s possible that you’re causing harm and not be aware of it.”

Researchers published a study on their findings within the Journal Clinical Biomechanics.

In addition to self-reporting by patients, and the information derived from Conity researchers are also taking medical imaging results and medical records into the database to give extremely individualized assessments as well as greater analysis of scenarios for patients the researchers said.

The team is planning to continue collecting motion-sensor data from people suffering from and with no back pain , independent of the study to enhance the technology and increase the availability of motion-sensor tests across the country via clinical software developed by researchers the team said.