There’s No Way Around It: The Truth Hurts

How do people hurt themselves? More importantly, how do we know when it's serious? Wearable motion sensors can help answer both questions.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

Biomedical engineer Calvin Kuo wants to understand how different actions put people at risk of injury. But there’s no way around it — the type of data he needs has to be collected in the real world.

“We specialize in developing wearable human motion sensors, and one of our main focuses here is not just on normal motion, but really on injuries and how do people actually get injured outdoors?” says Kuo, assistant professor at the UBC School of Biomedical Engineering.

“And this is one of the really big things that we cannot do in laboratories because obviously we can’t intentionally hurt people. So the best way we can observe these injuries as they occur is when they occur.”

A major area of interest of Kuo is concussion biomechanics, because this type of traumatic brain injury is very difficult to diagnose. Clinicians rely on neurological functional tests to make a diagnosis, which essentially boils down to asking patients a series of questions about things like what day it is, or for their birthdate.

“We know that concussions are caused by impacts to the head, and so we’ve been developing sensors to measure how hard do people get hit and trying to say, ‘Well, if you’re getting hit above a certain threshold, you are at risk for a concussion.’ So that’s one of the big translational pieces for that work,” explains Kuo.

In addition to concussions, Kuo has recently been expanding his research to apply these techniques to other injuries like knee injuries and ankle sprains.

“What we’re really focused on here is to try and assess risk. So are you putting yourself at risk by performing certain actions, and can we quantify those actions?” says Kuo.

As wearable sensors are becoming more common in the consumer market, such as in smartwatches and other devices, Kuo sees an opportunity for everyday users to start monitoring their health continuously. Instead of guessing at whether a hospital trip is necessary, a wearable could provide around-the-clock data to help users assess their risk.

“Now wearables can give you a lot of information up front about your health so that you have a little bit more information to go on and say, ‘Do I actually need to go to the emergency room? Is this a huge problem?’ And it gives you a lot of that quantitative information up front for you to make these more informed decisions about your health,” says Kuo.

“So that’s where I see a lot of the wearable technologies being in play, and particularly in rural communities where maybe access to healthcare is a lot less prevalent, wearables can do a lot in sort of providing the frontline health needs for those communities.”

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