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February 7, 2002

Medical school gets grant to study wheelchair users

The medical school's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation has received a five-year, $1.75 million grant to study upper limb pain in wheelchair users who have suffered spinal cord injuries.

The grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research will fund the first multi-site study of its kind. It will research the causes of arm pain in an estimated 200,000 individuals with spinal cord injuries who must use their arms for mobility.

Michael L. Boninger, associate professor and research director of physical medicine and rehabilitation and director of the University of Pittsburgh Model Center on Spinal Cord Injury (UPMC-SCI), is the principal investigator of the study.

"We estimate that nearly 75 percent of those who have had spinal cord injuries suffer additional injury and pain because of repetitive movements during manual wheelchair use and transfers," Boninger said. "This adds another potentially debilitating effect on their health and well-being. Our intent is to look at ways in which we can prevent their pain and suffering as much as possible.

"The consequences of upper limb pain are so significant, some researchers have suggested that damage to the upper arm may be functionally and economically equivalent to a second spinal cord injury," Boninger said.

UPMC-SCI has made strides toward understanding the relationship between upper limb injury and wheelchair propulsion biomechanics. This understanding has led to specific recommendations related to wheelchair design, set up and training that have the potential to prevent pain and injury.

Previously, this work was limited due to lack of a sufficient sample size to perform complex statistical analyses.

UPMC-SCI has joined with two other spinal cord injury research centers, the Kessler Medical Rehabilitation Research and Education Corporation and the University of Washington.

"Through this collaboration, we will be able to study over 200 individuals with paraplegia," Boninger said.

"The impact of this work will be substantial and will go beyond individuals with SCI, as it will likely be applicable to all individuals with disabilities who use manual wheelchairs and all individuals who suffer repetitive strain injuries."

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