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Reducing the risks of spinal injuries in rugby

Bruno is using mathematical modelling to improve our understanding of spinal injuries from impact in rugby union.

Bruno Hernandez with his numerical model for spinal impact
Bruno Hernandez with his numerical model for spinal impact
‘Sometimes it’s difficult because we don’t know the next step but it’s great that we are pushing the boundaries of research. And it feels good to know that what I am doing will help improve lives someday.’
Bruno Hernandez PhD student in Mechanical Engineering

'I was very clear about what I wanted to get from my PhD at Bath from the start,' says Bruno Hernandez, who is studying for a doctoral degree in Mechanical Engineering. 'When I arrived here in December, I knew exactly what I wanted to research and what I wanted to achieve.'

Bruno is developing a numerical model that will simulate impact situations related to the spine in rugby union. Bruno's research, supported by experimentation, can give a better understanding of how impact loads act on the cervical spine during a match, whether through scrums or tackling.

Rugby is a high-impact sport and it's not uncommon for a player to sustain back or neck injuries during a game. The extent of the damage is not always immediate or obvious. Players can encounter difficulties in later life, experiencing muscular problems or developing degenerative diseases. Bruno's work can inform preventative measures as well as determine the best choice of treatment for spinal injuries in the sport.

Pursuing a career dream

Bruno is from Jaú in Brazil. He studied his undergraduate and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Bauru School of Engineering, São Paulo State University (UNESP). In the second year of his undergraduate degree, Bruno was offered the opportunity to work with Professor Edson Antonio Capello de Sousa on dental prosthesis and numerical modelling. It was during this time that he developed an interest in biomechanics that would later become the core of his PhD research.

'When I first graduated, I wasn't sure what direction to take. I wanted to go further with my studies but also, as a mechanical engineer, I wished to explore my options in the industry. I had been working in an engineering company when Professor Capello contacted me. He invited me to return to higher education and take a funded master’s degree with him as my supervisor. I was being given the chance to pursue my dream of an academic career so I said yes.'

After completing his master’s degree, Bruno began exploring the possibility of an international exchange with a university.

'At the University of bath they were working with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), looking at the effect of impact on the spine in the game. My confidence and experience in numerical modelling seemed to fit well with what they were trying to achieve.'

Visualising the nature of impact

Bruno is now seven months into his PhD at the University. His research involves performing experiments in the biomechanics lab and running mathematical models in the CT visualisation suite. Carrying out impact tests on porcine spines can be a time-consuming and complicated process. It takes days to set up an experiment and involves careful dissection and scanning of the spine.

'But if I can create a mathematical model that represents the same thing as these tests, I can run simulations and take the data I need from that. This is faster and less onerous than carrying out experiments in the lab.'

To make sure that the numerical model is accurate, Bruno still has to carry out initial impact tests. He applies the same conditions used in the lab to his mathematical model to compare the results. If the data from the simulation is comparable and similar to the findings from the impact test then he has a reliable model on which to base his studies. This model can also be used for other issues that are difficult to investigate in an experimental practice.

'This is my aim. To create a framework on which to build models that can be used to assess impact. I’ll be able to run simulations for the types of impact rugby players might encounter during a game. Understanding the nature of impact will help prevent injuries in the future or identify the best ways to treat them.'

Pushing the boundaries of research

Bruno’s research will have a wider impact beyond the world of rugby. The techniques he is developing will be valuable for assessing impact injuries sustained in a range of situations. Bruno is at the beginning of his PhD but is already thinking about a future in academic research.

'I really like this sensation of researching at the frontiers of knowledge. Sometimes it’s difficult because we don’t know the next step but it’s great that we are pushing the boundaries of research. And it feels good to know that what I am doing will help improve lives someday.'