Augmented and Virtual Reality Tools Are Making Sports Injury Prevention Real for Young Athletes

Date: Dec 7, 2022

College-level and professional athletes can access the most advanced training programs and technology for sports injury prevention and recovery. But researchers at Emory Sports Performance and Research Center say younger athletes would benefit most from advanced sports injury prevention programs and tools.

“We know that the way children grow and develop impacts their risk for sports-related injuries,” says center director Gregory D. Myer, PhD, professor of orthopaedics at Emory University School of Medicine. “Helping kids play safe and stay safe through their growing years can keep them active and competitive.”

Myer began his sports medicine career studying anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in young women. The ACL is one of two ligaments in the center of the knee and can often be torn while playing sports. Meyer points to research showing that just over half of young athletes return to competitive sports following an ACL injury.

Created in collaboration with the Atlanta Falcons, the center’s efforts focus on the science of making sports activities—from football to fútbol—safer for kids. “Injury of any kind is a key factor for quitting sports,” Myer says. “And with so many young kids playing a lot of sports at a pretty high level, we know we have a huge opportunity to make a difference.

“It makes more sense to start implementing sports injury prevention programs early rather than after athletes play through their high-risk years.”

Myer has found that those high-risk years begin around puberty—a critical time to keep kids active.

“When injuries happen, kids are removed not only from their sport but also from that sport’s built-in social network,” Myer says. “This creates a big risk that kids will head down a pathway of physical inactivity.”

Gaming Their Way to Sports Injury Prevention

To gather information about injury and reach young athletes in a meaningful way, the Emory Sports Performance and Research Center team uses advanced imaging, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

Myer and his team use these tools to see how the brain responds to certain movements and help young athletes train their brains to be safer sports participants.

For example, the team is using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study existing brain connections and whether they can be adapted to reduce injury risk.

The team is also investigating the effectiveness of biofeedback on sports injury prevention. In this study, athletes train by “competing” against characters in AR and VR worlds. There, they receive biofeedback—information about their movements—and can use that feedback to make movement corrections that could prevent future injury.

The center also focuses on concussion prevention and finding better ways to predict when it’s safe to return to play following a concussion. This work is important, Myer says, not only for the impact concussions can have on the brain but also because of the elevated risk they bring for secondary musculoskeletal injuries. Research has shown that sports-related concussions can affect muscle control, which could result in knee or other lower-extremity injuries even after athletes are cleared to return to play.

Broadening Their Reach

While their work relates to a range of sports, the center’s team focuses on basketball, volleyball and soccer, as these athletes have higher rates of knee injuries.

But of the three, soccer is where most injuries occur. That’s why soccer players account for the largest portion of their research population, both for concussion and knee injury studies.

But Emory Sports Performance and Research Center’s work with soccer injury prevention extends far beyond their own facility.

Recently, representatives from the Bundesliga—a professional soccer league in Germany—visited the center to learn more about the work they are doing and see how it could be implemented across their professional and developmental leagues.

As international organizations work to expand injury prevention abroad, the center is also working to reach more people across Georgia and the U.S.

The center’s home base is located next to the Atlanta Falcons training center and inside the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center at Flowery Branch. But the team believes they can expand their reach because of the advances and growing availability of personal AR and VR equipment.

“At the Emory Sports Performance and Research Center, we’re trying to find a way to bridge neuroscience with biomechanics to create a mind-body solution to build better and safer athletes,” Myer says. “We see our lab as a place for research, development and testing before deploying technologies more broadly.

“For us, it’s all about creating a healthy love of activity and sport and removing the negatives that injuries can create.”

Innovation at Emory’s Sports Performance and Research Center

The Emory Sports Performance and Research Center located next to the training facility and inside the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center at Flowery Branch is a new leading-edge research center, serving both the professional athletes of the Atlanta Falcons as well as community members of all ages. Researchers are focused on injury prevention in young athletes. The team conducts ongoing research and technology development for concussion prevention, sports injury prevention and performance enhancement.

About Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center

Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center offers a full range of services to diagnose, treat and repair bones, joints and connective tissue, such as muscles and tendons. Our team puts your health and well-being first. Part of our commitment to patients is making sure you receive the care you need when you need it.

We have 11 office locations throughout metro Atlanta and beyond. We are the official healthcare team provider for the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Dream, Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Hawks, and over 40 collegiate, high school and community sports programs.

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