Universities use Fitbit trackers to study spine surgery recovery time

By Aditi Pai
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Fitbit ForceResearchers from Northwestern University have launched a study that will analyze how monitoring the physical activity of patients who underwent spine surgery, using Fitbit activity trackers, could help them predict the patient's recovery time.

Mayo Clinic published results of a similar study that used Fitbit devices to track recovery time of cardiac patients back in 2013.

Northwestern is collaborating with researchers from the University of California San Francisco and New York University for the study, which was funded by the International Spine Study Group.

The study is focusing on minimally invasive spine surgeries for degenerative disease and deformity, like correcting scoliosis. According to a release from the university, Northwestern Assistant Professor and Principal Investigator Dr. Zachary Smith also plans to apply this physical activity monitoring approach to all spine operations in the future. 

“An activity monitor allows us to have an objective, numerically exact and continuous measure of activity,” Smith said in a statement. "This can show exactly how much function a patient has regained and, critically, when and if it occurs during the recovery period. This may allow us to predict when a patient will be back to 50 percent activity, 100 percent activity or even 200 percent activity in the future.”

Patients will use the Fitbit activity trackers during the four weeks before their surgery and for six months after surgery. In preliminary results, the researchers said they have already started to observe how surgery changes a patient's activity levels.

“It appears that almost all patients go through a four- to six-week period where their activity is decreased," Smith said. "Just over a month out from many of the surgeries, they get back to their pre-operative level. Then they slowly continue to climb to new levels of activity that they could never have reached before.”

Fitbit devices, which are often used in studies to track physical activity, were recently used by the activity tracker company to measure the heart rate of people watching the Super Bowl, according to a post from VentureBeat. On Super Bowl Sunday this year, Fitbit aggregated data from Boston- and Seattle-based consumers who either own the Fitbit Charge HR or Fitbit Surge, the company's two new trackers that sense heart rate. Fitbit found that while the heart rates for Fitbit owners climbed throughout the game, it reached a peak when New England made an interception, reaching an average of 6.1 beats per minute. The data also showed that heart beats were lowest during the half time show, which starred pop singer Katy Perry.