Brigham Young University is one of four universities partnering on a new $4 million NFL grant to study the prevention and treatment of hamstring injuries among football players.

BYU joins lead researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and those at the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia on the multi-year effort. This is the first NFL-funded study on hamstring injuries, the most common injury suffered by NFL players, with nearly 75% of such injuries resulting in missed time for NFL players.

The project aims to 1) determine what musculoskeletal characteristics might make an athlete more disposed to hamstring injuries, and 2) identify better processes for injury mitigation and prevention. Researchers at BYU, including BYU Athletics Coordinator of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Brett Mortensen, will systematically image the hamstrings of every football player annually and follow up with MRIs for those
who suffer hamstring injuries.

“We’ll look at the muscles, look at strength, look at previous injuries and then make models to see if we can come up with a predictive algorithm for who might get hamstring injuries for the first time,” Mortensen said. “If we can identify those things, then we can identify better ways to intervene and hopefully prevent injuries.”

BYU is the only participating university that does not house a medical school. Mortensen said the BYU MRI facility and the experience among BYU researchers for musculoskeletal imaging with MRIs and ultrasounds was a major positive in helping them land a spot on the project. The BYU MRI Research Lab is 3,500-square-foot facility with a fully equipped Siemens TIM-Trio 3.0T MRI scanner located in the McDonald Building on campus, just a short walk from both the Engineering Building and the Life Sciences Building.

BYU football players make a tackle.
All BYU football athletes will be scanned once a year for the study.

BYU’s team, which includes exercise science professors Wayne Johnson, Sarah Ridge and Dustin Bruening, will start collecting baseline MRI data on football player hamstrings during the summer of 2022. Subsequent MRIs will be administered each summer through 2025, and additional scans will take place for those athletes who suffer injuries.

“All four institutions will be doing the same thing, which will mean MRI scans for 500 athletes per year and ultimately 1,000 to 1,400 player data years,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a lot of data and it will give us ample opportunities for mentoring BYU students to set them up for future research prospects.”

The study is being led by Bryan Heiderscheit, professor of orthopedics and rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Under his direction, the team of multi-disciplinary researchers will combine advanced quantitative imaging, on-field biomechanics and computational analytics to identify risk factors.

The goal is to develop data-driven approaches to help individualize risk assessment for initial and recurrent hamstring injuries.

“The persistent symptoms, slow healing, and high rate of re-injury make hamstring strains a frustrating and disabling injury for athletes and a challenge for sports medicine clinicians to treat,” Heiderscheit said. “To truly understand and reduce hamstring injury risk requires a study of an unprecedented size and scope, and we’re able to do that now thanks to support from the NFL.”