New model of musculoskeletal system could predict injuries

Scientists have developed a mathematical model for all human bones and muscles which shows the transmission of force throughout the body. The model could help predict compensatory injuries and help guide people on how to avoid them.

Network science

A team from the University of Pennsylvania, US, are the first to convert the entire body’s network into a comprehensive mathematical model, using ‘network science’ methods that are usually used to study DNA and proteins.

The modelling work involved representing the musculoskeletal system as a graph or a network, and looking at the bones and muscular connections. By treating bones as ‘balls’ and muscles as ‘springs’, they could investigate how the network functions, and show the transmission of force throughout the body.

Injury insight

The model has provided insight into how an injury to one part of the body can lead to increased strain on another. Danielle Bassett, lead researcher, said: “We can say, ‘if this is the muscle you injured, here are the other muscles we should be most worried about’.”

She continued: “We saw that the more impact that a muscle has on the rest of the body, the more real estate we use in our brain to control it. We think it’s a way for us to maintain robustness in those muscles – if a muscle can have a massive impact on the rest of the body, you don’t want any error in controlling it.”

Compensatory injuries

As the model is refined further, and is tailored to individuals, it could help clinicians and physiotherapists predict compensatory injuries (where one muscle is injured and you ‘compensate’ for that injury using other muscles) and therefore help people avoid them.

According to the results of the work, published in PLOS Biology, it should lead to further studies into testing “whether faster recovery may be attained by not only focusing rehabilitation on the primary muscle injured, but also directing efforts towards muscles that the primary muscle impacts”.

Refining the model

The researchers plan to continue refining the model, including making the bone mass more realistic and improving the modelling of how muscles stretch. 

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