Slipping for Science

December 20, 2007 8:41:49 PM PST
Most people try to avoid wiping out when treacherous winter weather sets in. But there are some brave volunteers who are taking a tumble on purpose. And it's all in the name of science.

Many anxious people spend the winter season doing what they can to avoid a nasty fall. So why have some people actually agreed to slip up?

"I didn't expect to actually get caught tripping as much as I did," said Julie Cain, study volunteer.

UIC Student Julie Cain is one of dozens of volunteers helping UIC researchers figure out if there is a way to prevent falling down.

"We've found some remarkable things," said Mark Grabiner, Ph.D., researcher, UIC Dept. Kinesiology and Nutrition.

With the help of cameras, sophisticated computers, a safety harness and some slippery Plexiglas, researchers are dissecting why some people do a better job of recovering from a slip. It all happens very fast, but that brief moment is crucial.

Scientist Mark Grabiner says they have discovered two things. First, younger volunteers are able to very quickly slow down the foot that initially starts slipping.

"it's a reaction time and muscle strength combination," Grabiner said.

Second, older volunteers tend to put the foot that could steady them too far off to one side. That increases the likelihood they will fall.

Why older people react differently is still a mystery. But UIC researchers think this information can be used to train people to recover from a slip, especially since they have had some luck teaching people to stay upright after a trip.

"Our approach is to train the skill specifically and treat the older adult like an athlete," Grabiner said. "We have the equipment to do it."

The body's reaction to tripping is different than slipping, but a small study shows that women who practiced on a treadmill-looking device were able to keep on their feet weeks after being tripped up by the machine. It appears to sharpen several skills, including balance and reaction time.

"It seems to be much more of a coordination thing, so it really is something you could quite rapidly learn," said Karen Troy, Ph.D., researcher, UIC Dept. Kinesiology and Nutrition.

But does this make a difference in the real world?

"You know those cement blocks that are right in front of parking spaces? Believe it or not, I was walking, and my foot hit it, and I stepped right over it," said Ginny Thomas, study volunteer.

Thomas was part of the tripping study years ago. She says she hasn't taken a tumble since.

While scientists work at unraveling the mechanics of falling down, Professor Grabiner says there is something everyone can do to increase the odds of stay up on both feet. As obvious as it sounds, he says, simply pay attention to where you are going.

" If you see a piece of slippery sidewalk coming up, you will naturally assume a gait that has shorter steps to keep your feet underneath you," Grabiner said.

The UIC researchers tell us more than 200 people have so far been involved in the tests. Thanks to the harness, no one has been injured. More volunteers are needed.

Biomechanics Research Laboratories
University of Illinois at Chicago
Dept. of Kinesiology and Nutrition
www.uic.edu/ahs/biomechanics/


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