Biomechanics help doctors diagnose athletes' ailments

July 24, 1992|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Next time an Oriole ace turns sour, don't ask why his curve ball doesn't break or why his fastball has lost its pop. Instead, furrow your brow and wonder whether he's lost an inch off his stride, or if his elbow-to-body angle has dropped a few degrees.

Welcome to biomechanics. Using high-speed video technology

and computer graphics, physicians from Johns Hopkins and Children's hospitals are getting athletic performance down to an exacting science that gives new meaning to the question: "What's gone wrong?"

For the past several months, researchers have been attaching reflective golf balls to athletes'shoulders, elbows, wrists and legs, then videotaping them with five cameras as they go through their baseball pitches, golf swings and tennis strokes.

Recognizing only the shiny balls, the camera relays what it sees to a computer that creates a connect-the-dots model of the athlete in motion. What's the point? To diagnose little glitches that could be responsible for such common injuries as a sore elbow or torn rotator cuff (shoulder).

"What we hope to do is look at someone's mechanics when they're healthy," said Dr. Edward G. MacFarland, director of the sports medicine section of the Johns Hopkins department of orthopedic surgery. "Then, perhaps later on when they're having problems, we'll repeat the study and see how their technique has changed and beable to make a scientific analysis."

Even if the athlete isn't ailing, the technology could pick up subtle changes that could mean poorer performance -- explaining perhaps why Cal Ripken isn't hitting or why Ben MacDonald is giving up so many home runs.

All this is part of a joint venture in sports medicine between Johns Hopkins and the Bennett Institute of Children's Hospital, announced yesterday by physicians associated with both institutions. Professional and amateur athletes are seen at the Bennett Institute, located on Children's campus off Greenspring Avenue.

While Children's has long been known for its expertise in sports medicine, boasting such physicians as Oriole orthopedist Charles E. Silberstein, the partnership is Hopkins' first foray into sports medicine.

Dr. Richard Stauffer, chief of orthopedic surgery at Hopkins, said he wanted to push the venerable institution into sports medicine to give doctors and trainees expertise in treating the soft tissue injuries -- ligaments, cartilage and tendons -- that make up most of athletes' ills.

Another reason was to capitalize on what he sees as an underserved market for sports medicine -- East Baltimore. Toward that end, Johns Hopkins will be establishing a satellite clinic at the Francis Scott Key Medical Center next month.

At a news briefing yesterday, ex-Oriole Jim Palmer was on hand to help demonstrate the possibilities of biomechanics technology. Outfitted with 14 reflective balls, he pitched ball after ball on a plastic mound. Cameras and flood lights were stationed all around.

Animated stick figures -- the computerized Jim Palmer -- appeared on several video screens. Each figure was Palmer taken from a different angle. Later, Dr. Silberstein showed how the images could be combined into a composite: a three-dimensional model representing everything the Hall of Famer did, from windup to follow-through.

"See how smooth this is?" Dr. Silberstein said, pointing to the sweep of Palmer's pitching arm, a cross-hatching of lines on a computer screen.

While coaches have been studying pitching mechanics for a century, Dr. Silberstein said the naked eye cannot notice subtleties such as a pitcher dropping his elbow two degrees. But the video camera, taking 200 pictures per second, documents that and more.

The sports medicine team is working toward creating a composite image that represents the average of say, 100 professional pitchers. It could be the standard against which all suffering pitchers are measured.

Over the past year, doctors have noticed a tendency in Little League pitchers: Once a youngster releases the ball, the rotation of his shoulder tends to accelerate.

"This doesn't happen with adults," said Dr. Kevin Campbell, director of Bennett's biomechanics laboratory. "One possible explanation could be that the actual weight of the baseball may be too great for a small child to throw."

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