Biomechanists Wanted!

Biomechanics is fascinating, and of course I think so but I’m not the only one, I promise. It’s weekly that I get an email from someone telling me that they wished they would have studied this field instead of…whatever, law or hairdressing — you name it. And, who wouldn’t love it? Biomechanics, when talking about a true, well-developed curriculum, explains so much about our physical experience that no other science can touch.

The first “biomechanist” — that is a person who had both the math and mechanics skills coupled with the biology/physiology know-how could be either Leonardo da Vinci or Galileo Galilei. Within a hundred years of each other, both of these dudes were working on trying to understand the functions of the human body with respect to the emerging laws of modern science — conservation of mass, leverage, etc. Leo was a levers and muscles guy, as you can probably tell from his drawings.

I fancy myself after Leo, although my drawing skills are a bit questionable.

Galileo was more a “materials” guy — he was really interested in bones as columns, and how they needed enough mass to support the weight of the body in various situations but needed to be light enough to allow the human to be extremely mobile.

One of the reasons da Vinci and Galileo didn’t make more progress in this field (other than the fact that they were both Italian and probably drank a lot of wine) is that they only had basic mechanical laws that could be applied to rigid-bodies (discrete mechanics) and didn’t have a model for soft tissues that could change in response to a situation (continuum mechanics). For an easy example of this, picture a bone, like the one in your upper arm.

While this bone seems pretty stiff, it actually varies quite a bit in density as well as the type of bone cell depending on where you look and is not all that “solid”. It’s actually kind of porous too, especially when you look at it up close. When you apply a load to a tissue like this, some of that load ends up kind of bending the bone, although not so much that it breaks. Soft tissues handle loads differently than, say, a metal bar, because you have to convert some of the load to “bending” in this case. And different loads from where your body mass is relative to each bone and loads created by muscular pulls all create a different type of bend. The math gets a bit more tricky when you have to calculate not only the movement of the bone relative to the body but the movement of the bone relative to itself.  Back in “the day”, when the emerging science laws were all about machines and mechanics and rigid bodies (like planets), there wasn’t any way to really talk about soft tissues with any mathematical authority.

Another example: When smart guys were first researching the cardiovascular system in the 1800s, the question was — are arteries “perfect elastic bodies?”

So, are arteries perfect elastic bodies? I hope so, because that would make it so easy to calculate how much blood is where and troubleshoot a clogged artery, etc. But, alas, it turns out that no, they’re not. Because there is smooth muscle that can change the size of an artery *snap* like that — and only in a tiny area. Which is great for the arteries (hooray for intelligent tissue!), but not so great for the scientists who need to publish something concrete about the amounts/values/data that can be applied to mass populations. When you add more recent findings that the muscular environment around the smooth muscle-walled artery affects what the smooth muscle (and therefore the artery) can do, you’ve really got a doozy of a problem. The “How Arteries Work” section of your physiology book doesn’t get to this level of mechanism. Partly because it’s based on information that’s 30-60 years old and partly because it has already been decided (by those that decide such things) that a pre-requisite for physiology should not include calculus-based physics. So, everyone gets the 10th grade version of the artery. In college.

FYI, I believe Perfect Elastic Bodies was the main article in last week’s People Magazine, but I could be wrong.

Where are we today, in terms of understanding how the human body works? Work initiated by the Leos, more than 500 years ago, still shapes much of the work being done in modern biomechanics courses as the progress of biomechanical science really fell off due just after the 1600s due to two things: the organization of curriculum, and chemistry.

As you can see, knowing “just” the mechanical laws doesn’t really help out much when it comes to really understanding biomechanical problems. You have to have a pretty well-developed cache (read: years of study) of biological background. In the 17th century, it was deemed that learning the anatomical system (that is memorizing the name of parts and their connection points) would be the best place to start for students. Of course, the human body is so expansive that by the time those experts in anatomy took an entire education on the names/shapes/locations, there was no time to give to equal learning of the mechanics — those are the laws that dictate how the tissue actually “works.” Fast forward to 2012, this way of teaching human science is still the standard across the board. A ton of people who know what it all is — without really much understanding the why or how it all works.

The second halt to biomechanics as a progressive theory was the use of chemistry to explain physiological phenomenon. Because (mathematically) evaluating and describing a moving body human tissue by tissue was too complicated, it became easier to reduce physiology to chemistry — as the chemical signals that follow a mechanoreceptor stimulation are pretty straightforward. A good example of this is (again!) bone.

Until the last 30 years, bone has been presented as the mineral reservoir to the body, a place to store minerals “until the body needed it.” Most of the theories about bone disease, mineral balance in the blood and nutrition are still based on this misunderstanding through oversimplification. It turns out that the body needs the bones more than what’s in them.

When data supporting the notion that bone was a tissue responding to mechanical signals (not chemical ones) with a primary agenda of maintaining itself was first presented in the 1960s, orthopaedic surgeon Harold Frost was regularly mocked or disregarded. Because he was presenting nonsensical or unsupported or unscientific stuff? Nope. Because he was presenting information people did not have a skill-set to understand.

And, when you don’t understand something (especially when you don’t have the skill-set to) it’s best to publicly announce why you don’t “believe” it. This is how it’s been done for centuries. Only now it’s done on Facebook, which should make for some interesting public record.

So where have all the biomechanists gone? Probably to the same place that we all go (to the bar?) when we realize that to truly learn something takes a lifetime and can’t be done only through books or only through intuition, but through a life-long pursuit of experimentation both formal and informal.

I do wish they’d return because what is extremely clear is that very few people have the skill set to comprehend how one type of movement or set of joint positions is mathematically unique when it comes to stimulating the body’s many tissues. Common knowledge (and practice) has been lost regarding the required frequencies, intensities, joint ranges of motion, and loads to every level of tissue in the body for the purpose of triggering the mechanoreceptors that stimulate tissue development. The term biomechanics should not be associated with exercise or fitness or performance. Biomechanics has to do with biological function. You don’t stimulate the mechanoreceptor, you don’t get the cell to work. Period.

I wonder how small one must be to qualify as a quantum mechanic? Sorry, physics joke.


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26 thoughts on “Biomechanists Wanted!

  1. I’m not sure if I’m inspired to continue learning about biomechanics or depressed that I’m so uneducated and have already spent half of the lifetime it would require to begin to comprehend any small part of it…. But I do know I’m glad to have at least a window into the potential! If it weren’t for you, I’d likely never have even heard of any of it. Here’s to glimpses of knowledge through Katy! (Raising my glass of chianti, in honor of the Italians.)

  2. It was interesting to look at the Journal of Biomechanics and check out the institutional affiliations of authors. You can see that most come from mechanical engineering, with quite a bit fewer from medicine. Maybe an emphasis more on the mechanics than the bio?

    1. And, the elephant in the room, perhaps, is that the study of medicine is absolutely not the study of biology — so even the “biology” less-than halfs is low on biology 🙂 They key is to not have a group representing “all there needs to know” but a training program that one person can take (over 20-30 years maybe) where they can work to expand the knowledge. There is a lot of movement in ME, but I don’t know if it’s that helpful in determining the basics in biomechanics that should be part of every-school/household curriculum…

  3. I do wanna be one! I wanna start over… It kind of hurts my brain now. And maybe I should be a quantum mechanist, due to my size and all:)

  4. Im with Joann, I want to be one too, but it hurts my brain. I wonder how much of my structural problems could have been prevented if I, or my Dr.s had the skill set to understand bio-mechanics and the combined affects of diet, exercise, sports, stress … on my body, then perhaps I may have avoided some of those seven spine surgeries. Each one takes its toll on my brain power and the ability and energy to learn more of what could be the info I need to reverse all this crap (do you like my very scientific terminology?) that breaks down my body.

  5. Inspired and at the same time wishing I’d known 20 years ago that it would be really super cool & relevant to study biomechanics in college!! When I gave up dance, it seemed like the only college program that was body oriented was PT and I wasn’t terribly excited about it. Ah well, hindsight, blah blah blah – enjoying learning all the cool stuff I’m able to now 🙂

  6. As a newer yoga teacher who is trying to bring yoga to people of all ages and abilities, I am intrigued by your blog. Loving to learn more and helping others see themselves differently through self-sutdy and observation. I just ordered your set of videos and am so excited to get started. Thanks. Also, my daughter is a high school senior who loves math, science (and reading and writing), I would like to share this blog with her to see if she is inspired to explore this field of study. What are your thoughts on undergrad programs? Thanks for sharing your gift!

    1. I would strongly suggest taking an anatomy course from a massage/body worker school FIRST, because if she loves the body, she will find more support in applying mechanics to health than to robotics and will get a better sense of anatomy “use”. For undergrad, I suggest doing the first two years as a math or physics major (a JC is good for this as well) and then transferring into a Biomechanics undergrad if she can find one (it will likely be in a Kinesiology dept. in the U.S.) The U.S. is actually the worst place to study biomechanics as they’ve slowly eradicated all of their programs (we’re not that into health, it turns out) Canada has some exceptional graduate programs and she would have an easier time finding a US grad program than undergrad. I also am very intrigued by UCSC’s “science-writing” graduate program. We have a ridiculously low level of people reporting science to the masses who actually understand it. If I wanted to be a journalist or writer covering all things interesting, I think this program would be my dream…Good luck to her no matter what she ends up doing! Learning is so fun, the end point of a job should be moot anyhow!!!

  7. Wow, thanks again for reminding me of how much I don’t know, and how much more I want to know. KB, YOU ARE AWESOME, even with breastmilk dribbling down your front (actually, that makes you even MORE awesome)!!

  8. I vote that this be the intro to your new textbook that will be required reading by all students. (Until you post another, more, more better blog.) (I was going to say for all physiology, pre-med and PT students. But pretty much everyone needs the info. You just might need more pictures for the biomechanists under ten and over thirty. Everyone else will click on the links to your videos imbedded in the e-book versions. Ooo. Maybe a video game too.) Thanks so much!

  9. Ms. Katy,

    You are certainly waxing eloquently for a biomechanist that is on the verge of bringing into the world a new little one or maybe a mini biomechanist – aligned and well of course.

    Actually this is pretty heady food for thought, Leo. Nice! Like the part about having the skill set to understand. Maybe that’s why I see some people looking like a deer in the headlights when I’m talking about what I’ve learned from you and the Rexi instructors. It could be the people I’m talking to have nothing to relate the information to. It makes so much sense to me but to them maybe not so much. And then there is the issue of apathy. In that case time to shake the dust off my sandals and move on.

    Have a Happy Birthing Day!!!!

  10. Katy, I just love all the things you write – I think you are talented and brilliant. I wish you could bottle up all of your knowledge, we would drink it like a potion and Vola – Of course, so we can all be biomechanic specialists and more…. I just keep learning and helping others, thank you for sharing all your valuable information.

  11. As a homeschooling Mom and being completely fascinated with all of your info I would love to know what you think should be “basic biomechanics” taught at school or home?

    1. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I’ve long wanted to have a school that taught a full curriculum using biomechanics as a platform so I have a ton of ideas age 3-18. But the essentials would be anatomy and physiology — joint motions — basic science concepts like weight vs. mass, introduction to gait (I did a homeschool section on feet — maybe I’ll do one on gait as well…) It’s not that biomechanics needs to be a separate curriculum from science — it’s that science is shown to be more applicable to the human body instead of arbitrary. I like a unit on mass vs. weight and then perhaps bone health — why how you carry your weight impacts the state of tissue development? So many ideas!

  12. The body of knowledge out there is so vast and it is so wonderful and so important that there are people like you that set out to educate and empower anyone who wants to learn. I am frustrated by the lack of up to date higher education that is out there. I am a massage therapist, and yoga teacher (Yoga Tune Up) and as it turns out a serial student.

    In considering what my next step in furthering my education and credentials it kind of looks like I have two choices. Keep on doing what I am doing and persue more knowledge through self study and experience which is great and what many of my role models have done.

    Or I can go get a higher degree, most recently I was thinking of a DPT, with the understanding that the books I would be learning from would be out of date and behind the current research and that I would still have to contiue self study to actaully get a grip on how I could effectively help people.

    The only real difference I suppose is in one case I get more letters after my name and people would be more likely to listen to me (which I like).

    I so wish university level education could be current with new info. It so annoying that it gets stuck in ciriculum instead of teaching the best, newest info.

    Rant over.
    Thanks for doing what you do!

  13. I’m with Mary Ann on the deer in the headlights comment. Even the students who devotedly practice RE and natural movement can be missing an important point, which is to improve understanding of how YOUR OWN body works and to pay attention to subtle as well as loud signals. Once you really tune in, and THINK, you may in fact find a biomechanical corrective approach to a problem. The sad part is the majority of Homo sapiens are somewhat disconnected with their own bodies’ responses to inputs (me included up until 4 years ago). Health/medical/wellness decisions are generally left up to “experts” who often don’t know the answers but who have the authority to order lots of tests. Okay, enough venting.

  14. Thank you, Katy, for turning my anatomical world upside down and inside out. At this stage of my life, I am not returning to traditional school to learn the science, as intriguing as you make it sound. Instead, I will work on my alignment, and walk, a lot. I will play with my mass in space and feel the forces at work on my trabeculae, sarcomeres and other tissues. Maybe I can feel the science? I wonder.

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    {Hi|Hello|Hi there|What’s up}, I {log on to|check|read} your {new
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    post page to all my {friends|associates|contacts}, {because|since|as|for the reason that} if like to read it {then|after that|next|afterward} my {friends|links|contacts} will too.|
    My {coder|programmer|developer} is trying to {persuade|convince} me
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    {Any kind of|Any} help would be {really|greatly} appreciated!|
    {Hello|Hi|Hello there|Hi there|Howdy|Good day}! I could have sworn I’ve {been to|visited}
    {this blog|this web site|this website|this site|your blog}
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    {I just|I simply} {would like to|want to|wish to} {give you
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    {Hi|Hello}, Neat post. {There is|There’s} {a problem|an issue} {with your|together
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    {leader|chief} and {a large|a good|a big|a huge} {part of|section of|component
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    {Hi|Hello}, i think that i saw you visited my {blog|weblog|website|web site|site} {so|thus} i came to “return the favor”.{I am|I’m} {trying to|attempting to} find things to {improve|enhance} my
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