Sufferers of lower back pain can look forward to better therapy if research at the University of Wales Aberystwyth proves successful.
Estimates for the cost of back pain in the United Kingdom run between a quarter and half a billion pounds a year.
The project aims to develop the use of gait analysis, a technique used in determining human movement patterns. An image is built up by placing markers and devices that register movement on the patient's body. The markers are tracked by an external camera system which sends the results to a computer. Finally the results are collated into a three-dimensional image.
Although widely used in areas such as sport, robotics design and animation, the medical application of gait analysis has yet to be fully exploited. Soussan Khodadadeh, whose study began eight years ago, says: "Established practice has concentrated on analysing the movement of the lower limbs, even when the problems are known to arise from the back."
Her research will therefore focus on the back itself, including an analysis of the motion of the spine. Because the spine's complexity poses immense computational problems, the researchers are working in collaboration with Aberystwyth's computer science department.
The study is expected to take a further two years. On its completion the researchers hope to establish a network of medical personnel to raise awareness of the technique's benefits in other areas such as foot problems, the growth of limbs or back pain in pregnancy.