NIH grant supports wearable technology system to improve recovery from leg fractures

Karl Zelik, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University, is using wearable technology to explore better patient recovery methods from shinbone fractures and the surgeries required to repair them. The research team has received $2.7 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for this 5-year project.

Karl Zelik

The study is a collaboration between Vanderbilt’s Center for Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology and the Biomotion Laboratory at the University of Kentucky, directed by Brian Noehren. Noehren is co-Principal Investigator with Zelik. And Peter Volgyesi, a research scientist from Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems, is an investigator on the project.

Patient recovery following a fractured tibia (shinbone), and the surgical procedure to repair it, often results in an inability to perform pre-injury leisure activities, while 47% of patients are not able to fully return to work a year later, the researchers said.

Peter Volgyesi

To address these issues, Zelik and his team are using a non-invasive wearable sensor system that fits inside of a shoe and novel machine learning algorithms developed at Vanderbilt to monitor tibial bone force in daily life. The goal of the NIH study is to measure how much tibial force patients experience during daily activities and in their rehabilitation programs, and how tibial forces early in recovery affect long-term functional outcomes.

“We will be able to identify how the rate at which people load their limbs affects their recovery,” Noehren said. “From that information, we can develop new interventions to help people recover more quickly to return to work and their prior activity levels.”

More than 490,000 Americans fracture their tibia each year, resulting in significant healthcare costs with over 569,000 hospital stays and 800,000 physician office visits. Clinicians currently prescribe a rehabilitation exercise program that exposes a patient’s tibia to increasing forces to gradually recover the ability to do pre-injury activities. However, there is no way of knowing how much tibial force patients experience at home during daily activities and in their rehabilitation programs to inform an effective rehabilitation treatment.

Zelik said the future of rehabilitation healthcare requires new tools that can help patients and doctors to monitor and manage loading on bones and other tissues inside the body, especially in the weeks following surgery. “That’s what we’re developing, a new class of wearable technology to enable remote monitoring of musculoskeletal loading, which can accelerate patient recovery and improve long-term health outcomes,” he added.


Contact: Lucas Johnson,