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Can Your Fitness Tracker Help You Recover From Neurosurgery?

Image of runner with one of many types of fitness trackers.If you’ve ever found yourself needing to exercise a little more to be healthier (and who hasn’t?) you’ve probably heard of fitness trackers.

These trackers are wireless motion sensors that you wear on your arm or clip on to your clothes. They track your movements and send the information to your smartphone, and computer.

There you can log in to see how many steps you’ve taken, how much distance you’ve covered, how many calories you’ve burned, and why you probably shouldn’t have eaten that doughnut.

Would you believe these trackers could help you recover from neurosurgery?

After surgery, doctors often want patients up and moving as soon as possible. Getting out of bed and walking can decrease the risks of many post-surgery complications and help the healing process. This is true both in the hospital and after patients go home. Many of the complications that lead to readmission after neurosurgery are associated with a decrease in physical activity after the patient goes home.

Doctors monitor and encourage patient activity in the hospital, but once home it can be hard for patients to track how much activity they are engaged in.

The researchers in Columbia’s Cerebrovascular Research Laboratory, under the direction of  Dr. E. Sander Connolly, wondered whether wireless fitness trackers might be able to help with this problem.

Fitness trackers are easily available, and can send movement data directly to a smartphone or computer. A patient wearing a tracker at home during recovery could have her data transmitted directly to the doctor.

Before testing their idea by sending fitness trackers home with patients, the research team first tested how accurate the fitness trackers are in recording movement. Dr. Connolly‘s research team tested the fitness motion trackers on post-surgical patients, having them walk while wearing a tracker and while being observed by the researchers.

They found that the trackers do accurately count steps as long as they’re positioned correctly. Patients recovering from neurosurgery tend to take small, slow steps. Fitness trackers are made for healthy people who make larger movements. Dr. Connolly found that the trackers picked up the patients’ smaller movements best when they were placed on patients’ ankles, clipped onto socks.

Next, the team gave 23 post-surgery patients a tracker to take home with instructions to clip the tracker to a sock anytime they were going to be out of bed and moving around.  It was also synced to both the patients’ smartphone and the researchers’ computer via Bluetooth.  The team monitored the information sent to their computers by the trackers for 30 days.

The research team expected to find that patients who had less movement were more likely to be readmitted to the hospital for complications. What they actually found is that patients who had a complete set of data for the 30 days (they had their tracker on every day) were much less likely to be readmitted to the hospital, while patients with incomplete data (they had their tracker on only part of the time) were more likely to be readmitted for complications.

It is not clear why missing tracker days correspond with a patient being readmitted. Dr. Connolly‘s team theorizes that missing days could mean that the patient wasn’t feeling well, or that the patient wasn’t following instructions about using the tracker and getting up and moving.

What is clear is that the fitness trackers may be able to send the doctors more valuable information about the recovery process. The researchers hope they will be able to use information from the trackers to identify patients who might be more at risk for complications during recovery, and get them the interventions they need. Working together, patients and doctors may be able to use fitness tracker data as a guide to a healthy recovery.

You can read the full study here.

You can learn more about Dr. Connolly at his bio page here, and more about the Cerebrovascular Research Laboratory here.

Photo Credit © Kuzmick/Dollar Photo Club

patient journey

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