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Buzz Swanik
Department of Kinesiology & Applied Physiology

What are your general research interests?

My research focuses on what I call “injury proneness.” Sprains are one of the most common injuries, and our research suggests that they’re caused by brief errors in coordination or judgment rather than by getting bumped or pushed by someone else. Some people can recover from a sprain and never suffer another one, but most people have persistent problems with repeated sprains of the same joint. So basically, I’m interested in the neuromechanics of sprains, with more emphasis on the neural aspects.

Muscle contraction provides stability to joints. What we’ve found with some people is that if they’re distracted at the timeworn moment, then they can’t stiffen the joint quickly enough to prevent injury—all of the energy goes into the ligaments rather than being absorbed by the muscles, and a sprain results. We’re talking about hundredths of a second here—it’s literally less than the blink of an eye.

A pilot study that we just completed showed that some people “listen” to their bodies better than others. It seems that some people can suffer a single sprain and become attuned to what is going on, which enables them to prevent future injury.

What are your current projects and how are they funded?

We have funding from a number of sources, including the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA), the Eastern Athletic Trainers Association, a COBRE (Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence) grant, and UD Athletics.

Swanik

Who are your collaborators on these projects?

Since we believe that susceptibility to sprains has a neurological component, we want to learn how the nervous system responds to joint loading. As the joint starts to become sprained—or is forced into an injury situation—the body detects that with special receptors and we are trying to intercept the signals at a few different points in the nervous system, including in the limb, the spinal cord, and the brain, and see how responsive the muscle would be to stiffen the joint.

So I’m currently collaborating with Bill Farquhar here in the Department of Kinesiology and Applied Physiology using micro-neurography, which tells us how sensitive receptors are to a potentially injurious event.

I’m also collaborating with Jochen Baumeister in Germany to detect brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) and with Stuart Binder-Macleod in UD’s Department of Physical Therapy to evaluate the brain’s regulation of muscle tone.

What are the likely next steps in your work?

Ideally, we would like to develop screening and prevention programs to help injury-prone people avoid repeated incidents.

We’re also interested in introducing a psychological component to the work because we know that one easy way to distract people is to place them under stress or make them anxious, which is related to our personalities. We’re doing a small pilot study now to look at the relationship between injury proneness and several characteristics. For example, are people who suffer repeated sprains risk takers? How mentally tough are they? Do they have a gritty, can-do attitude, or do they dwell on their injuries? Answers to these questions would help us in developing screening and prevention programs.

How would you describe your work’s importance to an interested lay audience?

A lot of the research that has been conducted on injury-proneness has focused on biomechanical issues—looking at the effects of factors like gait patterns and joint angles. But we shouldn’t overlook the influence of the brain on injury, because the central nervous system is a source for the biomechanics we observe during physical activities. The work has implications beyond sports, as accidental injury is a huge issue in the military, law enforcement, and the labor workforce.

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