Pitt’s Neuromuscular Research Lab Begins Work with a Third Branch of U.S. Special Forces: Air Force

PITTSBURGH – Marking the fifth ongoing research site at a Department of Defense installation, the University of Pittsburgh recently launched a Warrior Human Performance Research Center to conduct performance-optimization and injury-prevention research at Air Force Special

Operations Command (AFSOC) at Hurlburt Field, Fla., as part of a three-year, $3 million study.

The new site brings this 8-year-old program to a third branch of the United States military, the Air Force, with ongoing sites at three Naval Special Warfare SEALs bases (Little Creek, Va.; Stennis Space Center, Miss.; and Coronado, Calif.) and one Army Special Operations post (Fort Bragg, N.C.).

“And the funding is in place to begin working soon with the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command in Camp Lejeune, N.C.,” said Scott Lephart, Ph.D, director of the Neuromuscular Research Lab overseeing this program and distinguished professor, and chair of the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS). “This final piece is very important because it completes our support to all four Special Operations Forces Components and enables us to fully support the needs of the U.S. Special Operations Command’s priority operation called the ‘Preservation of the Force and Families Task Force’.”

The Warrior Human Performance Research Centers help to design physical-training programs to improve individual performance and reduce injury, said Timothy Sell, Ph.D, the principal investigator on the AFSOC research with the Department of Defense.

They have shown significant relevance and success in: limiting training, combat and recreation injuries; enhancing force readiness by maximizing the effects of training to reduce fatigue and optimize performance; and prolonging the operation life, as well as enhancing the quality of life after service.

For instance, the inaugural center, at Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st Airborne, implemented a specific training program that reduced overuse injuries by 25.4 percent, lower-extremity injuries by 17.5 percent, and acute injuries by 15.9 percent.

“The lab at Hurlburt is functionally identical to our other labs,” said Sell, an associate professor in the SHRS Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition “The research model is the same, too. What’s different is the Operator, and our research model has adaptability to be specific to each military group and each group of Operators.”

There are four different Operators at AFSOC versus, say, a Navy SEAL, although the Navy SEAL has duties in different areas. The AFSOC Operators are: pararescue, combat controllers, combat weathermen and Tactical Air Control Party. These are battlefield airmen from helicopters and planes, yet they also carry out various ground duties such as counterterrorism deployment and remote airfield/air-traffic control—a function they performed in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. Pilots are not part of this Human Performance Warrior study, which focuses on the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron.

“But each research project is unique,” Sell added, referring to the wide ranges of what they call task- and demand-analysis studies in these various Special Forces.

“We go out in the field, observe the different Operators, monitor them and observe the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal demands, and that tells us about each group.

At Pitt, you can observe the wrestler, the volleyball player, the basketball player, the runner, and they have different musculoskeletal demands. For instance, the cross-country runner wouldn’t have shoulder injuries. The wrestler could get a whole litany of injuries.” This research, Sell continued, “hones in on the specific needs” of each military segment of Special Forces and informs officials how to better train and prevent injuries among those groups.

The program all began in 2005 under the concept of bringing Sports Medicine research and expertise to the military, and the Special Operations components have embraced these projects. One assistant professor and two research associates at each base lead research into regular demands on these soldiers. The three Pitt employees assigned to the Hurlburt Field site are: assistant professor Meleesa Wohleber, M.S., a Pittsburgh native and former athletic trainer at a U.S. Coast Guard Training Center; research associate Deirdre McFate, M.S., a Delmont, Pa., native who completed her master’s degree in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition in 2011; and research associate Andrew Simonson, M.S., who completed both his Bachelor’s in 2012 and Master’s in 2013 at Pitt and previously worked for the UPMC Centers for Rehab Services.

Each project in the Warrior Human Performance program is in a different phase of the research model, primarily because each phase lasts roughly one year. The program hit the ground on a military base barely six-and-a-half years ago, with the 101st Army Airborne at Fort Campbell. Its epidemiological studies consistently demonstrate that the majority of musculoskeletal injuries occur during physical training, and that a sizeable percentage of those injuries are preventable through targeted, musculoskeletal-specific training programs.

“We’ll be approaching that phase of research with Navy SEALs in the near feature,” Sell added.

The Department of Defense designated $7.2 million in total grants to Pitt and SHRS for projects for fiscal year 2013 and similar funding for 2014. In addition to the Air Force project and others still in the works, this summer the U.S. Special Operations Command formally invited Pitt and the Neuromuscular Research Lab to become its applied scientific partner in support of Preservation of the Force and Families Task Force. This partnership is in the final stages of execution.

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