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BYU to receive $2.3 million NIH grant to tackle opioid crisis through wearable back sensor

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BYU Engineering and Exercise Sciences researchers seek to more effectively diagnose lower back pain through novel technology

An estimated 50 million U.S. adults suffered from chronic pain in 2016; in 2018, an estimated 10.3 million people 12 years and older in the United States misused opioids, including heroin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse in the United States (including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement) is $78.5 billion per year.

To tackle the opioid crisis gripping the nation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $2.3 million to researchers at Brigham Young University who are working to improve the process to diagnose and treat lower back pain.

The BYU team overseeing the project includes Anton Bowden and David Fullwood, professors in the Mechanical Engineering department of the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering, and Ulrike Mitchell, associate professor in the College of Life Sciences' Exercise Sciences department and fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists (AAOMPT).

Back pain has gained the distinction of being the most disabling condition in the world; back and neck pain are the leading cause of missed work days and rank second only to the common cold as a reason for a visit to the doctor, accounting for approximately 30% of general practitioner visits.

The BYU researchers' approach is to create and utilize a wearable biosensing system, made up of novel nanocomposite sensors (coined "SpineSense" by the BYU team), to measure back movements. A machine-learning approach will then be used to diagnose the mechanical causes of chronic lower back pain.

Spine surgeons typically have access to static information about the spine, largely taken from medical imaging data when the patient is lying prone in a CT or MRI machine. In contrast, physical therapists and chiropractors tailor their treatments to the dynamic motions of a patient’s spine, but don’t have an objective, measurable way to transmit that information to other clinicians.

"Our goal is to give clinicians much more objective information and diagnostic information about patients," says Dr. Bowden, "and to help them make decisions about the types of treatments that will be most effective at reducing or eliminating pain and restoring function.”

Drs. Fullwood and Bowden have been working together on biosensing systems for almost a decade; Dr. Mitchell joined the team about 5 years ago, adding a valuable clinical perspective to the team. The team is currently working on refining device design and validation and will soon begin clinical studies.

Through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative or NIH HEAL Initiative, BYU researchers have been awarded $725,000 to get the research underway, with the additional $1.6M to be awarded following the first two years of work. The NIH has awarded a total of $945 million in grants across 41 states in 2019 as part of this initiative.

“It’s clear that a multi-pronged scientific approach is needed to reduce the risks of opioids, accelerate development of effective non-opioid therapies for pain and provide more flexible and effective options for treating addiction to opioids,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., who launched the initiative in early 2018. “This unprecedented investment in the NIH HEAL Initiative demonstrates the commitment to reversing this devastating crisis.”