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Expanded Rehabilitation Science Laboratory a boon for research, patient care

An enhanced and expanded Rehabilitation Science Laboratory for the Department of Physical Therapy in Creighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions is already boosting the therapeutic and research capabilities of several departments on campus.

With two spaces — a 900-square-foot area equipped with cutting-edge technology for computer-aided imaging and a revamped 3,000-square-foot room for heavier equipment and treatment capabilities — the upgrade in facilities is a welcome step for students and faculty across Creighton who are embarking upon ever-expanding research in the arena of making patients’ lives easier.

“It’s an expansion both in space and resources,” said Terry Grindstaff, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and one of four core faculty members overseeing the lab. “We are already seeing a wider interest in collaboration with the lab and that was the motivating idea here: to find an interprofessional expansion of what was already a good lab and make it accessible to a number of interests and projects in the health professions.”

Those collaborations include osteoporosis research with the School of Medicine, various projects being undertaken by graduate and undergraduate students in the Department of Exercise Science, interest from the School of Dentistry in starting research on ties between oral and whole-body health and the Athletics Department, which is interested in scoping ways to help athletes avoid and recover from injuries.

Moreover, faculty and students in physical therapy have collaborated and assisted in each other’s projects, increasing the department’s capacity at the lab. The interprofessional impetus is also at work, given the intersections of medicine and exercise with rehabilitation.

An array of projects is already underway among Department of Physical Therapy faculty, including a study on pregnancy and gait from Jennifer Bagwell, PhD, and a look at the physical therapy options for treating Parkinson’s disease from Joseph Threlkeld, PhD. Exercise science students are looking at the mechanics of people walking in high-heeled shoes.

The smaller space, with seven cameras mounted on its walls and an eighth mobile camera, along with a complement of six force plates in the ground and a massive treadmill expected to be operational in May, is itself a study in the future of physical therapy and exercise science. With the cameras and a set of wireless sensors that can be placed at points around the body, physical therapy faculty and students have been measuring force and impact on patients recovering from injury.

The sensors record a host of data and, with the cameras and software tools, provide different video versions of patients undergoing exercises. Those video models record the stresses and forces at work in various activities and can even show a skeleton model of the patient during his or her workout.

“We can see so many things: the forces through the knees, the hips,” Grindstaff said. “We can slow that down, speed it up, play it on a loop. It’s giving us a much greater sense of the motion and how those forces have an effect on overall daily function.”

Researchers are also looking at healthy people, determining what practices might work in avoiding injury.

“Athletics is especially interested in that,” Grindstaff said. “And from our end, we’d like to be able to bring all of Creighton’s athletes in and look at some of the ways they’re moving, try to improve performance, try to help prevent injury. With all the technology here, we are able to more precisely determine what forces are at work in a knee or an ankle, we’re able to see how a knee injury affects a hip. We have widened the scope of what we can do.”

More force plates in the ground in both locations are also helping researchers get a clearer look at how a person contacts the ground while walking or jumping.

The custom-built treadmill will be the only one of its kind in the region and will be a boon to a spectrum of research projects.

“Before, with just a few force plates in the ground, we could only measure one step from one foot at a time,” Grindstaff said. “The treadmill gives us thousands of steps that we can observe. There’s so much more we can do with that.”

The refurbished and upgraded lab is also seen as a recruitment tool, Grindstaff said. With the University’s Department of Physical Therapy high on national lists, the new spaces are helping promote the reality that Creighton is a place where curious students can not only become skilled practitioners, but also engage in high-level research at the vanguard of the profession.

“It’s a big step forward and we’re proud to have made it,” Grindstaff said. “A lot of the excitement comes from the commitment that Creighton, overall, has made. The University has seen it’s not just the Physical Therapy Department, but it’s a larger reach. That commitment is an investment in the researchers, the departments, the students. We look forward to seeing where we go from here.”

In addition to the updating and expansion of the physical therapy lab, Creighton is also investing in refurbishment of other SPAHP labs in the near future. The Department of Occupational Therapy is expanding its lab for pediatric and geriatric experiences, a project slated to begin this summer and wrap up by year’s end.

The Pharmacy Skills Lab has begun construction in the Vinardi Complex, with completion expected by the end of the year.

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