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Issue 467, 21 May 2001

High-speed camera is backbone of research

A sophisticated high-speed camera has proved the key to understanding the mechanics of spinal injury.

Researcher Ruth Wilcox, from the School of Mechanical Engineering, has won plaudits across the globe for her research into how the spine reacts under a major impact. The work is a collaborative project between researchers from the School and St James’s University Hospital.

Sharpshooter – Ruth Wilcox

Using vertebrae from cows, she has been simulating a spinal burst fracture – the kind of injury which might be sustained falling feet first off a ladder, or diving into a swimming pool without water.

A heavy weight is dropped onto the vertebrae, and the impact filmed at 4,500 frames per second. The whole event takes only 20 milliseconds, but playing the film back frame by frame shows exactly how the bones splinter and collapse, giving a clear picture of the precise nature of injuries sustained in such an accident.

Patients arriving at hospital following spinal burst injury have often shown no collapse of the vertebrae under X-ray, and so damage to the spinal cord has often been underestimated.

By fixing the camera to film down the spinal canal, Ruth discovered that the vertebrae collapse inward under the weight of the impact – but then spring back into shape. The precise images shown by the camera have allowed her and the team to measure exactly how much the canal closes up, and so calculate the level of damage to the spinal cord.

Ruth’s work has been recognised by the British Orthopaedic Society, the Australian Society of Biomechanics, the Scoliosis Research Society and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

She and the team are currently continuing the research using a gelatine mixture inside the vertebrae to simulate the spinal cord, in order to determine more precisely the effects of injury.

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