NSF Set To Fund $1.2M UC San Diego Lower Back Pain Study

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $1.2 million to a multidisciplinary team headed by UC San Diego researchers to develop a unique approach for researching and informing the management of chronic lower back pain. A variety of techniques, such as wearable sensors and machine learning, will be used in the project to improve physical therapy assessment and treatment. According to the UC San Diego’s press release, up to 80 percent of people suffer low back pain at some point in their lives, and the yearly cost of treatment and lost pay as a result of disability in the United States exceeds $100 billion.

“This research will support remote monitoring of the patient’s posture and movement throughout the day, with the ultimate goal of enabling personalized physical therapy treatments and improving health outcomes,” said Emilia Farcas, the grant’s principal investigator and an assistant research scientist with the Qualcomm Institute (QI) at UC San Diego. 

The MS-ADAPT system, which uses wearable technology and smartphone-based applications to remotely monitor low back posture and mobility, as well as maintenance with physical therapy and patient-reported pain, will be developed over a four-year period thanks to the NSF funding. The study’s participants wear both a Fitbit and a network of intelligent sensors that were created by fusing nanotechnology with over-the-counter kinesiology tape. These “Motion Tape” sensors can monitor muscle activity, spine mobility, and skin strains, which are the stretching or changes in skin texture that occur during physical exercise. In addition, the researchers are also developing cutting-edge machine learning techniques to forecast how physical therapy will affect low back pain in order to accelerate rehabilitation, lower healthcare expenses, and provide more individualized medical treatment. 

Researchers may eventually use MS-ADAPT as a universal platform to investigate other medical conditions, such as limb loss, spinal cord injury, and stroke, as part of the team’s long-term objectives. The MS-ADAPT team anticipates that the new technology will make it easier to forecast a patient’s development throughout therapy and assess their risk of reinjury when it comes to diagnosing and treating persistent low back pain. Furthermore, principal investigator Emilia Farcas and her colleagues intend to use this partnership to educate a new generation of researchers who can work across academic lines.