MSU Researchers Develop Method to Detect Arthritis Earlier

Researchers at East Lansing’s Michigan State University are developing a method for detecting arthritis earlier, possibly delaying and preventing the loss of thumb function, surgery, and more.
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MSU arthritis study
MSU researchers are using three-dimensional motion capture technology to try to detect arthritis earlier than current detection methods allow. // Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

Researchers at East Lansing’s Michigan State University are developing a method for detecting arthritis earlier, possibly delaying and preventing the loss of thumb function, surgery, and more.

The scientists are using motion capture technology to screen for differences between healthy hand movements and those in patients with osteoarthritis, or OA. The team’s research is published in Clinical Biomechanics.

“Our work suggests that three-dimensional motion tasks may be able to identify OA-associated motion deficits earlier than the two-dimensional motion tasks typically used in a clinical setting,” says Amber Vocelle, co-author on the research and a DO/PhD student in the College of Osteopathic Medicine. “By identifying the disease earlier, we can treat OA earlier in the disease process.”

Therapists and clinicians traditionally use goniometers, or two-dimensional measurement tools, along with basic movements to screen for reduced hand function due to OA, says Vocelle. The results, however, can vary depending on who’s conducting the tests, making it hard to reliably track over time.

“There are pieces of information that aren’t being gathered right now that could be useful for early prediction of OA of the thumb, or setting up thresholds to define when people should consider doing therapy before they’re in severe pain,” says Tamara Reid Bush, an associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering who also worked on the research.

Motion capture technology records precise, objective measurements in three dimensions.

The researchers put markers on participants’ hands, which were then monitored by motion capture technology as they went through a series of three-dimensional thumb movements. Differences between healthy and OA-diagnosed patients were observed.

“Thumbs aren’t just important for people playing the piano or knitting for fun. Almost everything you do on a daily basis involves the thumb in some way, shape, or form,” Bush says.

The scientists will look at how a six-week thumb exercise protocol impacted the ability to generate forces with the thumb. They observed an increase in thumb strength in two weeks.

A next step could be to develop tools for conducting the three-dimensional measurements in-clinic without the need for laboratory-grade motion capture devices.

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