Dec. 7, 2007 When you think of towering skyscrapers and large bridges spanning deep valleys, you wouldn’t normally link them to the joints and tendons throughout your body that allow you to move. Dr. Gail Thornton does.
It turns out that many of the same design principles are at work. Thornton is both an engineer and a medical researcher and she’s breaking new ground in an area of medicine that has eluded most practitioners. The work she’s doing now could lead to new treatments for people suffering from repetitive stress injuries, a very common type of injury.
“We need to understand more about what’s happening to the way ligaments and tendons perform their functions; only then can we try to intervene and prevent damage from happening or improve therapies,” says Thornton, an assistant professor in the University of Calgary’s faculties of Medicine and Engineering, who carries out her research in the McCaig Centre for Joint Injury and Arthritis.
There are still many unknowns about the way our complex system of ligaments, tendons and bones work together and, when injured, how they heal best. Thornton’s applying design principles used more commonly by engineers to uncover some of the mysteries.
Understanding the mechanics of the knee
Thornton’s specific focus is knee ligaments and their response to damage, such as an injury from repeatedly putting too much stress — or load — onto the ligaments over long periods of time. When one ligament is damaged in the knee — think about removing a load-bearing wall from a building — the remaining three ligaments in the knee must carry the weight, making the person more prone to a bad injury.
When baseball pitchers make each throw, the rotator cuff tendons in their shoulders have increased loads placed on them. Thornton’s research could lead to new ways to lessen the damage to them or better ways to treat their injuries.
Because she works so closely with other doctors in a vast range of disciplines, her research can be more easily incorporated into real-world treatments.
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