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Moving X-rays to revolutionise the diagnosis of back pain

Published: 
21 March 2003

A new image processing system devised by engineers at the University of Southampton could change the way that back problems are diagnosed and provide a solution to one of the most common causes of work loss in the UK.

Low back pain is a significant problem and its cost to society is enormous. However, diagnosis of the underlying causes remains problematic despite extensive study. Reasons for this arise from the deep-rooted situation of the spine and also from its structural complexity.

Professor Robert Allen and his team in the Signal Processing & Control Group in the University's Institute of Sound and Vibration Research are working with colleagues at the University's Electronics & Computer Science department, The Anglo-European College of Chiropractic, and Salisbury Hospital, to develop a way of X-raying individuals while they are moving, a technique which they believe will improve the diagnosis of back problems by enabling clinicians to quantify how the spine is moving.

"Up to now, clinicians have frequently used plain X-rays to diagnose back problems," comments Professor Allen. "These X-rays can only tell you about the spine in a static position, but if we X-ray as the person moves using very low dose radiation, we can see how the spine is moving and with image processing techniques, we can quantify the movement. Since back pain is often caused by soft tissue damage and not damage to the bones themselves, abnormal motion of the vertebrae may help us to locate the source of the problem."

Their approach is based on automatically identifying vertebrae from the motion image sequences, calculating how each vertebrae moves and coupling this information with a dynamic 3-D lumbar spine visualisation. The traditional approach has been for clinicians to take 2-D images and to form a 3-D impression by mentally transforming these images. Three-dimensional visualisation of the lumbar spine can allow clinicians to observe the lumbar spine from different viewpoints and angles and may be helpful in understanding, diagnosing and treating back pain problems.

Their next challenge is to establish what 'normal' movement looks like so that they are in a position to recognise abnormalities.

Related Staff Member

Notes for editors

  1. The Institute for Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR) is an internationally renowned centre of excellence in teaching, research and consulting. In the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, it received the top 5* rating.
  2. The University is currently raising funds for a £5.7 million new building for the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research. The new building will house an updated, state-of-the-art Biomedical Imaging Research Department, which will make it the one of the leading Biomedical Imaging centres in the country.
  3. The interface between technology and humans has been at the centre of ISVR's activities, with active research and teaching programmes in audiology (including a highly respected MSc course), human vibration interactions, medical imaging, patient monitoring and physiological modelling. Clinics at ISVR (including the South of England Cochlear Implant Centre) and collaborations with hospitals are at the core of these projects. ISVR also runs undergraduate courses in various aspects of sound and vibration: an MEng/BEng degree in Acoustical Engineering, a BSc in Acoustics and Music, and from September, a BSc programme in Audiology.
  4. More details can be found on the web-site at www.isvr.soton.ac.uk
  5. The University of Southampton is a leading UK teaching and research institution with a global reputation for leading-edge research and scholarship. The University, which celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 2002, has 20,000 students and over 4,500 staff and plays an important role in the City of Southampton. Its annual turnover is in the region of £235 million.
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