A researcher at the University of Calgary hopes to prevent injuries by increasing joint sensitivity.

Anyone who has injured a joint knows that the likelihood of injuring it again is higher than before. It can happen in an instant but leave life-long damage.

“I went up to hit the volleyball and I came down on someone’s foot and basically my knee buckled and went out from under me and hyperextended and went sideways,” said Adrienne Kline, who tore her ACL playing her favourite game.

Kline is taking part in research at the Schulich School of Engineering aimed at helping people just like her.

Normally, the nerves in a person’s body send constant signals to the brain, relaying information about balance or pain. When a joint is injured, those signals become weaker, meaning a person can push past the point of injury again and again.

A new research project involves placing a simple cuff over the knee that has small transmitters inside that stimulate the nerves to just under the level that the patient would notice.

“To improve your sensation around your knee joint so that your central nervous system is aware of where you joints are and then can intervene as quickly as possible to avoid injury,” said Payam Zandiyeh, researcher. “Noise is added to the signal that was reaching a nerve so the level of the signal is above the threshold.”

Zandiyeh is testing the cuff on patients with and without previous injuries.

“In both groups, their sensation at the area of the knee improved significantly, so that makes me believe that both healthy and knee-injured, ACL-reconstructed groups can benefit from this technology alike,” he said.

It’s valuable not just for avoiding short-term injuries, but also for preventing long-term negative outcomes such as osteoarthritis.

“I hope that if they are going into high-contact sports such as skiing, playing hockey, playing rugby, playing soccer, playing football, you name it, they can wear knee sleeves equipped with these vibration stimulators and hopefully their chance of injury will be reduced,” said Zandiyeh.

Athletes like Kline are hopeful the device will help protect people from serious injuries.

“Having a device that we could use as athletes would be a huge benefit I think because I think ACL tears is a very, very common injury,” she said.

Zandiyeh is hoping that sports teams will see the potential benefit of the device and support further research.