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New System Monitors Tiny 'Earthquakes' in Bones to Prevent Fractures

Researchers are applying the same basic technique seismologists use to measure earthquakes for a new medical technology that promises to prevent stress fractures by detecting the formation of tiny cracks in bones.//

The crack formation generates waves similar to those created by earthquakes. Researchers at Purdue University and the University of Toledo have collaborated to create a prototype device that could be used to monitor the formation of these "microcracks" in bones that can lead to hairline stress fractures unless detected in time.

"The goal is to create a wearable device that would alert the person when a stress fracture was imminent so that they could stop rigorous physical activity long enough for the bone to heal," said Ozan Akkus (pronounced Ah-Koosh), an associate professor in Purdue's Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

The system records "acoustic emission data," or sound waves created by the tiny bone fissures. The same sorts of acoustic emissions are used to monitor the integrity of bridges, other structures and mechanical parts like helicopter turbine blades.

"I asked, why not use the same approach to study stress fractures?" Akkus said.

Such a technology could help prevent serious stress fractures in racehorses and those who perform in situations that cause undue stress to bones, such as soldiers, athletes and dancers. The system could be especially useful in preventing fractures in U.S. Army recruits undergoing basic training.

"Strenuous military exercises subject soldiers to prolonged physical activity in which relatively small forces are repeatedly exerted on bones," Akkus said. "The forces are not initially strong enough to break a bone, but it's the repetition that poses the most danger by causing microscopic cracks to accumulate over time and eventually result in stress fractures."

The cracks form when collagen fibers in bone fail, producing sound waves
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