Part One: Bluetooth-Enabled Tools Streamline Testing
When Dr. Nate Harris worked as a staff physical therapist for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Seattle Seahawks, there were few training and rehabilitative tools he couldn’t get his hands on. The teams’ deep pockets meant therapists could splash out any equipment that could be dreamt up – from anti-gravity treadmills to Bluetooth-enabled compression shorts that measure muscle activation.
In short, professional athletes and their trainers have access to “the best of the best,” according to Harris.
It came as no surprise to him: professional sports teams – and some illustrious college teams – know their athletes are their greatest investments, so they are treated like investments. What did surprise Harris, though, was how radically different the level of treatment non-professional athletes typically receive is.
When compared to the almost futuristic care professionals receive, the therapy available to non-professional athletes has a dark ages quality to it. Testing tools are largely analog – not digital. Data can be qualitative – not quantitative. And the focus of care is generally reactive – not preventative.
Harris wanted address those inequities. So, when he founded his practice, Velocity Sports Physical Therapy, in early 2021, he was determined to bridge the care gap that exists between amateurs and pros. To do that, he knew he would need to approach his practice from a different angle than other therapists – and invest in equipment closer to what professional athletes use.
Providing Preventative, Whole-Body Care
In professional athletics, preventative care is a standard practice: it’s far easier to guard against injury by monitoring performance and focusing on strengthening and conditioning than it is to rehabilitate a torn ACL or reconstructed shoulder. It’s a principal Harris wanted to apply to his practice.
So, instead of myopically focusing on rehabilitation – the norm in sports physical therapy – Harris also helps his patients prevent injuries. Those patients come from a diverse range of athletic backgrounds: some are college and high school athletes, some play club sports, and others are highly active individuals like CrossFit and Orangetheory trainers, and recreational golfers.
And, while Harris and his team work with athletes from all sports, they specialize in upper-body intensive sports – like baseball, volleyball, golf, swimming, and lacrosse – which is a rarity in the field, according to Harris.
Because of his unique specialization, Harris treats many patients with UCL, wrist, forearm, and neck pain, and rehabilitates patients recovering from Tommy John, rotator cuff and labrum surgeries.
His goal, though, is to help patients avoid getting to the point of pain and surgery altogether. To help non-injured athletes remain healthy throughout the season, Harris runs individualized movement assessments that check for deficiencies that could predispose them to injury.
While specific tests vary based on the patient and the activity they participate in, Harris generally checks the subject’s shoulder and hip range of motion and their ability to dissociate their lower and upper body. If Harris notices any red flags (poor external rotation, for example), he transitions the athlete to a strength and conditioning plan, to ensure they prepare their body to play their sport as safely as possible.
In addition to treating patients in his clinic, Harris travels to schools and clubs to test entire teams. Before a season begins, Harris will assess players to establish their baseline values – which he keeps as a point of comparison if athletes do get injured. Sometimes, Harris will return to test the team throughout the season to monitor for red flags.
An Effective – But Time Consuming – Approach
A year ago, Harris tested a team of 16 high school baseball players to establish their baseline strength values. He used analog methods to run through three tests with each player; completing the assessments took him 2.5 hours.
While the data Harris collected was valuable, the time it took him to obtain it hindered his ability to deliver pro sports-level care to as many athletes as he would have liked.
Setting up simple, routine tests was a slog. For example, it took approximately 10 minutes to prepare an individual jump test – a fixture of Harris’ assessments. And, in addition to being slow, the numbers Harris got from the tests, which involve cameras and shutter speed, were “not exactly the most accurate.”
Harris knew he was on the path to shrinking the care gap – his approach hit the mark. That meant it was time to bring the second half of the equation into play: innovative, digital equipment.
More Preventative Testing, Faster
During his stints working with professional athletes, Harris was exposed to a dizzying number of highly specialized, high-tech tools. But Harris wasn’t looking to amass an assortment of niche equipment. Instead, he was on the hunt for one tool that was versatile and customizable.
In the course of his market research, Harris found a tool that suited his needs to a T: KINVENT’s K-Deltas Force Plates. A wide variety of tests can be run on the Bluetooth plates, which give users advanced biomechanical data. That data can be used to assess an athlete’s readiness for sport, or to help increase performance.
Harris purchased the plates from JLW instruments and found them to be “very helpful.” They even put him in touch with another physical therapist who uses KINVENT products.
“I asked him nitty gritty PT questions to see what was possible,” said Harris. “It was great to have that sounding board.”
Once Harris received the plates, he took them on the road to test a team of 40 high school lacrosse players. He conducted the same three tests he ran on the baseball team – this time with the plates. The time it took him to complete the tests? 50 minutes.
And the jump tests that used to take around 10 minutes to set up? With the plates, set up only takes 30 to 40 seconds, and the numbers are “completely accurate,” according to Harris.
With the plates, “I can spend more time on the stuff that matters,” he said.
Return to Sport with Confidence
Harris doesn’t just use the plates for preventative testing – they’ve also become an integral part of his rehabilitative care.
“There are certain benchmarks you have to hit from a strength and power perspective to know you are ready to go back on the field,” said Harris. “KINVENT gives you completely accurate numbers and peace of mind. Those numbers can confirm you are ready to return, or guide treatment if you aren’t there yet.”
The plates have been particularly helpful when Harris works with patients recovering from upper body injuries and surgeries. According to Harris, many tests that assess upper body strength and power – like pushup analyses – are difficult to measure quantitatively. When those assessments are conducted without digital tools, Harris says he must “rely on [his] eyes and what the patient reports feeling.”
Even when tests – like the hand and shoulder test – can be “MacGyvered” with weights and straps to produce numerical data, “there are a lot of variables that are hard to account for,” according to Harris. And the testing itself isn’t “clean, easy or efficient.”
The plates changed that. While Harris still uses his expert eye to monitor patients during assessments, he also uses the plates – which give him numerical data in real time on the physio app. They give him confirmation that “what he is seeing is what the device is seeing too.”
Another thing the plates measure that analog testing struggles to capture is power. Power – how much strength an individual can exert quickly – is a critical piece of the return to sport puzzle.
“There’s a difference between being strong and being powerful,” said Harris. “It’s relatively easy to assess strength. It’s more difficult to assess power.”
That’s because precisely calculating power with manual tests is nearly impossible. Luckily, the plates measure time in addition to strength, so they can easily determine how much power a patient exerts. With the data from the plates, Harris can adjust rehab plans to help athletes increase their power – and accelerate healing.
Better Numbers Equal Better Care
The numbers Harris gets from the K-Deltas plates, and the speed with which tests may now be conducted, changed the game for the doctor – and helped him deliver pro athlete-level care to his patients.
With the plates, Harris can conduct more tests on more patients, and get more accurate numbers. The patients, in turn, receive higher quality care that leads to improved health and performance outcomes.
“When athletes come and see me, they know there will be numbers,” said Harris. “That way, we all know that when they return to their sport, they are returning at 100%.”
To read more about how Harris and his patients have benefitted from the K-Deltas, read the full case study.