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Sitting disease

Research could benefit countless desk-bound Canadian workers

Research

By Jeff Green

What effect does sitting for long periods of time have on the flexibility and muscle function of the back?

That’s the question a new study led by a multidisciplinary team at Memorial hopes to answer.

The team is led by Dr. Diana De Carvalho, assistant professor, Faculty of Medicine, who is cross-appointed to the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation.

‘Improved prevention strategies’

“The goal of this specific project is to see if prolonged sitting changes the normal amount of time it takes for back muscles to turn on after a balance challenge,” explained Dr. De Carvalho, who is also the Canadian Chiropractic Research Foundation Professor in Spine Biomechanics.

“This work is important because if there were changes in muscle function after long bouts of sitting, it would be easier for someone to hurt their back,” she added.

“Better understanding will lead to improved prevention strategies to keep people healthy — especially at work.”

The activity of six low back muscles are monitored wirelessly by the Noraxon DTS Electromyography System.
The activity of six low back muscles are monitored wirelessly by the Noraxon DTS Electromyography System.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

Real-world impacts

Master of science student Ryan Greene, who is originally from Nova Scotia and is studying clinical epidemiology under the supervision of Dr. De Carvalho, is leading the study as part of his thesis.

He says the research could ultimately have real-world impacts.

“My thesis will be important for helping influence guidelines for length of time when sitting,” he said during a tour of the team’s lab in the Health Sciences Centre.

From left Mona Frey, co-op student, and Ryan Greene, a masters student, work with some of the equipment funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
From left, Mona Frey, co-op student, and Ryan Greene, a master’s student, work with some of the equipment funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

“If we find that muscle reflexes are significantly delayed after sitting for two hours, we know that sitting for that long could increase the risk of a low back injury.”

Practical training

Mona Frey, a fourth-year co-operative education student in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, is completing a work term with Dr. De Carvalho.

Originally from Hamburg, Germany — she came to Memorial four years ago to play basketball with the Sea-Hawks — she says her placement has been critical to gaining more practical research experience.

“I am helping mainly with the data collection,” she told the Gazette. “At the same time I am also collecting a small amount of data for my own project. Within the framework of Ryan’s study, I am reviewing our current method of normalizing spine angles.”

Preventive solution

Dr. Samareh Attarsharghi, a postdoctoral fellow with the faculties of Medicine and Engineering and Applied Science, is also working with Dr. De Carvalho.

With a background in electrical engineering, she is mainly involved in signal processing and algorithm development for a number of ongoing projects in the lab.

Active motion capture markers are incorporated into rigid body tracking clusters custom made and characterized by a subject. These tracking clusters are fixed to each segment of the body being measured providing researchers with extremely accurate movement data in three dimensions.
Active motion capture markers are incorporated into rigid body tracking clusters custom made and characterized by a subject. These tracking clusters are fixed to each segment of the body being measured.
Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

“We collect a variety of signals like electromyography and spine angles using sensors attached to the back of the participants,” Dr. Attarsharghi said. “I program codes to process the signals and make them ready for statistical analysis or for use to develop predictive algorithms. That’s how I can help Ryan in his project.

“The main project I am focused on involves the development of predictive algorithms to help us identify those individuals prone to developing back pain in response to prolonged sitting. Having this ability will lead to improved preventive actions to lower the risk of developing low back conditions.”

Federal funding

As part of the project, Dr. De Carvalho received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s Discovery Research Program.

She and Dr. Michelle Ploughman, Canada Research Chair in Rehabilitation, Neuroplasticity and Brain Recovery, also received funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s (CFI) John R. Evans Leaders Fund to establish a Comprehensive Biomechanics Laboratory. The project is also supported by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Dr. De Carvalho says the CFI funding has allowed the team to purchase critical equipment to conduct their studies.

“For this project, we are using CFI-funded 3D motion capture technology and wireless muscle activity sensors to determine the amount of time it takes for back muscles to turn on to regain balance of the upper body when a participant experiences a short fall forward,” she told the Gazette.

“The ability to address these complex questions, with state-of-the-art equipment, allows us to generate high-impact research while at the same time providing fantastic training and experience for our next generation of scientists.”


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