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What do biomechanists do?

This is an excerpt from Introduction to Kinesiology 6th Edition With HKPropel Access by Duane V. Knudson & Timothy A. Brusseau.

By Kathy Simpson

Career opportunities in biomechanics include such positions as researcher, clinical biomechanist, sport performance specialist, ergonomist, forensic biomechanist, and university professor. Related positions include certified orthotist and certified prosthetist.

Biomechanics researchers work in biomechanics laboratories, where they perform experiments that address problems of interest to various industries or assist with product development. For example, to design better footwear, a biomechanist working at a footwear corporation would collaborate with design engineers to understand the interaction between people’s anatomy, the way they move, and the forces that act on them. A clinical biomechanist in a biomechanics laboratory at a hospital might work with physicians and therapists to understand how best to help patients regain normal walking patterns with medical treatment. The clinical biomechanist might also be expected to collaborate on research with physicians.

A performance enhancement biomechanist might work with collegiate athletes, elite athletes, or professional teams and their coaching staffs in order to improve athletes’ performance. For example, a biomechanics company or sports medicine clinic could operate a facility in which biomechanists analyze athletes’ techniques to assess performance effectiveness or detect injury-related errors. Several academic biomechanists have founded their own companies, which offer access to equipment, software, testing, and consultation in forensic biomechanics. This type of biomechanist may be hired, for example, by national-level athletic teams and dance companies to work with their performers as a consultant.

Biomechanists may also work in occupational settings as ergonomists or human factors engineers. Some ergonomists work in research and development departments as part of a team of people who design equipment such as gardening tools, commercial airplanes, factory equipment, and office furniture. Others may work for specialized ergonomics-focused corporations that perform job-site analyses. These analyses involve evaluating how and why employees perform their work tasks. The ergonomist generates data and then recommends appropriate modifications in tasks, equipment, employee training, or incentives in order to encourage employees to modify their behaviors in ways that improve their safety or efficiency. Meister (1999, p. 21) views human factors (in the North American terminology) and ergonomics (in the European terminology) as one field that covers “everything relating the human to technology.”

Forensic biomechanists use biomechanical knowledge and principles to answer questions related to civil and criminal lawsuits (Schneck, 2005). For example, a forensic biomechanist might be hired as an expert witness in a civil lawsuit to testify about whether a biomechanical basis exists for an alleged work-related injury. Suppose that an employee develops a back injury and sues the employer. The employee alleges that the injury was caused by having to lift excessively heavy boxes of materials. The forensic biomechanist would try to determine whether the back-muscle forces required when performing the lifting task correctly exceed the maximums allowed by government standards and are high enough to injure this employee. The biomechanist would also have to determine whether it is likely that other factors caused or contributed to the injury, such as failing to use safe lifting techniques taught to workers.

Clinical biomechanists who work in medical settings, such as research hospitals that include biomechanics laboratories, perform biomechanical analyses of patients or research participants so that physical therapists and physicians can determine treatment. For example, several Shriners hospitals have a biomechanical gait analysis laboratory. In this setting, the surgeon, physical therapist, and biomechanist work together to assess whether a child with a disorder (e.g., cerebral palsy) requires treatment. If the child does receive treatment (e.g., surgery, physical therapy), they then work together to determine whether the treatment sufficiently improved the child’s ability to walk. The biomechanist’s responsibility is to perform and interpret the gait analysis and report the findings to the treatment team.

Although prosthetists and orthotists are not biomechanists, they use many biomechanical concepts and methods. Prosthetists and other professionals (e.g., physical therapists, podiatrists) sometimes also become certified orthotists. A prosthetist’s main focus is to help a client obtain and use a replacement body part, such as an artificial hand. Orthotists, on the other hand, assess a client’s body structure and function to understand what may be preventing a body part from completing its tasks effectively. For instance, injury or pain can result from anatomical deviations, which in children may result from abnormal bone growth, improper muscle functioning, neural defect, or some combination of these factors. The orthotist then fits the patient with an orthosis, a limb-supporting device such as a molded plastic brace that holds a child’s foot in the proper position. Prosthetists and orthotists also reassess their clients’ movements, watch for potential problems (e.g., injury, skin issues, ineffective movements), and make adjustments as needed.

Many biomechanists work in college or university departments of kinesiology, engineering, medicine, or other disciplines. A professor in a kinesiology department teaches biomechanics to students with interests in a variety of fields related to physical activity, rehabilitation, or medicine. The professor also conducts research in an area of biomechanics. Some biomechanists may also be clinicians and integrate patient care with their research and teaching.

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