Better Technology= Faster Diagnoses for Athletes

Can a person be a triathlon junkie? Sarah would have said she was. She loved the grueling aspects of the races and rewarding highs at the finish. She’d had a bunch of minor injuries, some persistent but manageable joint pain, and an intermittent annoying popping and clicking in her knees, but nothing had really slowed her down. Until the race last summer, that is.

The swim portion had gone fine, but while biking, Sarah’s right hip began to ache. By the time she finished, it felt like her hip and outer thigh were on fire. As she began the final run, for the first time ever, she wondered if he was going to make it. Sarah finished the race…barely. Two days later, she was still in a lot of pain, hardly able to walk. A fellow runner advised Sarah that she get the hip checked out.

When an x-ray and an MRI of her hip revealed nothing, Sarah was feeling frustrated. She was still in pain, couldn’t run, and didn’t seem to be any closer to an answer. Finally, she got a referral to a top orthopedic specialist with a background in treating athletes. After a consultation and an exam, the doctor ordered an MRI of Sarah’s right knee.

Wait…what?

The orthopedic surgeon explained that while Sarah’s tensor fasciae latae muscle, located at the top of her hip, was inflamed, the real cause of her pain was likely related to her iliotibial (IT) band, a thick tendon connecting the knee and pelvic bone. Because there are no nerves in the main bulk of the tendon, referred pain is most often felt at the connection site at the outside of the knee, but sometimes at the connection site of the tensor fascia latae.

Although both men and women experience IT band injuries, a new study suggests that they may feel referred pain in different places. A 2015 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports states that, “female ITBS runners exhibited significantly greater hip external rotation compared with male ITBS and female healthy runners.” According to Dr. Reed Ferber, a world-renown gait expert, runners who are men tend to experience knee-related pain from the foot up, while women tend to experience it from the hip down.

Because running is such a popular activity, serious runners can have their gait analyzed using 3D biomechanical technology. And recently, a group of researchers in Finland and Canada put artificial intelligence to use to sort through a bunch of data from 3D gait analyses to see if utilizing unsupervised machine learning technology could identify what injuries runners with specific strides might be prone to.

While AI isn’t yet able to predict injuries, it’s gotten pretty good at identifying and classifying things, which is good news for athletes like Sarah. It‘s likely in the near future, common conditions like hers will be diagnosed more quickly by algorithm.

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