By Tara Bannow • The Bulletin

There’s a big, wide-open room in Bend with high ceilings, treadmills and tape markings on the floor. It looks like a gym, but it’s more of a laboratory than anything. Here, trainers affix their subjects with straps dotted with reflective markers. Cameras hanging from the ceiling quietly monitor their movements.

After a subject runs or jumps or squats in the middle of the room, a computer screen nearby plays a video of their movements — in skeleton form.

Welcome to the Functional Orthopedic Research Center of Excellence Lab of Oregon State University-Cascades. Located inside The Center Orthopedic & Neurosurgical Care & Research, the lab allows researchers to study Central Oregon’s athletes in a way not many of their peers can: in real time. Here, they hope to help athletes improve their performance and prevent injury, all while learning more about movement.

Christine Pollard, the lab’s director, said she thinks the lab’s current studies on knee braces could contribute much-needed research on the devices, which she said often reduce pain for people with common knee problems, but experts don’t actually know that much about them.

“What we want to know is if they put a brace on and they say it feels better, are their mechanics becoming more normal — which is what we want to see because it suggests that we’re changing the problem,” Pollard said, “and then the long-term question is, if they wear that brace, is it overall changing the way they move?”

The researchers also hope to get a clearer idea of whether one style of brace does a better job than another, and whether certain types of patients would benefit more from a specific brace, she said.

The lab is undertaking two studies, both funded by the prominent knee brace manufacturer Breg, on two different groups of people. The first: active 18- to 40-year-olds who experience what’s called patellofemoral pain, which happens when the cartilage under the kneecap wears down or softens, causing the kneecap (also known as the patella) to move outside of its normal position. PFP strikes people at all ages — it’s common among high school athletes and people in their 60s or older, Pollard said.

In the PFP study, subjects will wear the reflective markers and perform three tasks in the FORCE Lab: running, jumping off a 12-inch-tall box and standing on a box and lowering themselves down on one leg. They’ll have to perform each of those three tasks under four different conditions: without a knee brace and with three different styles of Breg knee braces. Pollard said researchers will try to compare their body mechanics before wearing the brace with how they move in each brace.

The second study will focus on subjects between the ages of 40 and 65 who’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis, a common disorder that results from the cartilage around the joints wearing down. In that study, subjects will walk up and down steps with no brace and with two styles of brace. They’ll also have to wear a brace six hours per day, seven days a week for four weeks. In that study, Pollard said, the researchers want to learn what both types of brace are doing to reduce the rotation in the knee joint, what happens after they’ve worn the braces for several weeks and whether the braces, once they’re removed, change the way the subjects walk.

Timothy Bollom, an orthopedic surgeon with The Center, said PFP and osteoarthritis are the two most common conditions among the patients he sees. He sets them up with braces and monitors their progress, but he said doctors like him don’t know exactly what a brace is doing.

The problem is that doctors study patients’ knees using X-rays and MRIs, which present a static image but don’t allow them to study the knee in motion in real time, Bollom said. Likewise, researchers tend to study knees using cadavers.

“Really, the advantage to what Christine has developed is this is live patients, real braces as opposed to most of what’s been done in the past: static studies on patients or you’re doing cadaveric analysis of various parts of treatment,” he said.

Both of the studies are fee-for-service, meaning OSU-Cascades gets paid to perform them and then hands its findings over to Breg, which can choose whether or not to publicize them, Pollard said. The real benefit is the studies provide funding for the FORCE Lab, they benefit the researchers and participants and ultimately lead to more research partnerships with industry, she said, adding that other companies have already inquired about future projects.

Bollom said he thinks the research could also identify more general improvements that could be made to knee braces. He said Breg is among roughly five major brace manufacturers used in the U.S. — others include DonJoy and Ossur — and they could always make adjustments to strap positions or other characteristics.

“There’s probably a lot of room to maybe make current bracing even better,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0304,