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Soft bracing technology could reduce NFL knee injuries

(BOSTON) – For professional football players, knee injuries are one of the most common and devastating injuries that can be sustained in the sport. And when knee injuries do occur, affected athletes are up to 80 percent more likely to suffer from knee osteoarthritic disease even if they receive corrective surgery. In a recent survey, nearly half of all National Football League (NFL) players interviewed were most concerned about injuries to their knees or legs, more than any other area of the body.

Current knee bracing technologies are too rigid and can negatively affect an NFL player’s performance. A novel soft bracing design, conceived by Harvard University researchers Conor Walsh and Ata Kiapour, could protect the knee from injuries without impacting an athlete’s mobility on the field. Credit: iStock.com/skynesher

But now, a promising effort to prevent knee injuries is underway by Wyss Core Faculty member Conor Walsh, Ph.D., who has been awarded a $150,000 pilot study grant from the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University to develop a prototype, protective knee brace constructed from soft materials. Walsh, who is also Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science and the founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, was recently recognized with a National Science Foundation CAREER award for his pioneering work in the field of soft wearable robotics and functional materials.

The proposed soft bracing technology, conceived by Walsh and Ata Kiapour, Ph.D., Research Fellow in Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, will use soft functional materials consisting of textiles and elastomers to support the knee. Compared to current rigid bracing technologies for the knee, which are highly restrictive and affect an athlete’s mobility, the proposed approach has the potential to passively provide dynamic protection without impeding an athlete’s performance.

The work could improve short-term and long-term health of football players by preventing devastating knee injuries that can end careers and lead to prolonged health issues. It could protect the knee from soft tissue injuries during play, particularly injuries such as tears to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The work will also pave the way for development of additional smart garments that can protect athletes of any age in any sport from various other musculoskeletal injuries to areas such as the ankle, shoulder and neck.

The Football Players Health Study was founded through a research partnership with the National Football League Players Association, and is focused on advancing the overall health of football players.

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