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News | Oct. 17, 2023

Military health and readiness improved through collaboration with small business

By Staff Sgt. Kelsey Martinez

In the course of their duties, many military personnel, including Security Forces personnel, parachutists, Air Force Basic Military Trainees (BMTs), and Special Operators, often endure significant physical stress on their lower body joints and soft tissues. These stresses can lead to musculoskeletal injuries (MSKI) that impact their well-being, performance, and overall quality of life. Importantly, such injuries also hamper the Department of Defense's readiness and drive up both operational and healthcare costs. Annually, MSKI affect approximately 800,000 military service members, resulting in 2.2 million medical visits, 25 million lost duty days, and healthcare costs totaling around $3.7 billion.
Ankle injuries are the most prevalent MSKI among military personnel, with service members being five times more likely to suffer ankle injuries compared to the general population. This makes ankle injuries a leading cause of lost training and operational time. Closer to home, medical attrition from BMT costs the Air Force up to $46 million each year, with MSKI being the primary reason for medical non-deployable status across the Air Force and the leading cause of medical discharges from the military.
To address these challenges, the 559th Medical Group introduced the Versatile Injury Prevention and Embedded Reconditioning program (VIPER) in 2017. This marked the Air Force's pioneering endeavor to have athletic trainers embedded within the unit, providing acute medical and rehabilitation services to basic military trainees and technical students. Recently, Maj. (Dr.) Korey Kasper and Maj. (Dr.) Steven Trigg, sports medicine physicians and clinical researchers heading the VIPER program, identified a commercial company called TayCo Brace that was developing an advanced alternative to the standard walking boot, commonly prescribed to safeguard a patient's foot and ankle following injury or surgery. The adoption of this new technology empowers injured servicemembers to swiftly regain their function and mission effectiveness, benefiting both the member and supporting the training of warfighters and military operations.
Kasper emphasized that their collaboration with TayCo adapted a commercial external ankle brace specifically for military training activities, facilitating quicker recovery and averting costs related to training delays.
This innovative approach enhances the wearer's range of motion and comfort, optimizing the healing, recovery, and restoration of function. To realize the potential for military use, the team partnered with the 59th Medical Wing Chief Scientist's Office Science & Technology (S&T) team and the 559th Trainee Health Squadron, collectively seeking and securing AFWERX Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding.
Over the past few years, Kasper and Trigg have collaborated with TayCo Brace to evaluate designs, provide feedback for improvement, and support its development. This culminated in the completion of the next generation brace this summer, with availability expected in early 2024 or possibly sooner. Named the XAB (eXternal Ankle Brace), this new design employs a range-of-motion-stop hinge, offering healthcare professionals greater control over functional recovery and return to duty. It includes a new strapping system for enhanced comfort and durability, as well as improved independence for service members in donning/doffing uniforms, equipment, and gear. The XAB also features an anti-slip plantar strap to enhance user safety in wet and rugged terrains. Furthermore, the material hardening and ruggedization of the XAB have reduced its weight, enhancing portability and durability in training and combat without sacrificing efficacy.
The military stands to gain significantly from this innovation, with expected return to duty rates up to four times faster, fewer performance disruptions, and improved outcomes after ankle and hindfoot injuries. The XAB is two to three times lighter than a standard walking boot and is the only external ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) that can be worn over a combat boot or athletic shoe. This provides exceptional stability and balance while limiting inversion/eversion movement, reducing downtime and recycled trainees as compared to traditional solutions like the walking boot. In many cases, trainees and service members can return to training, normal work/operations, or even combat almost immediately, enabling them to navigate wet, rough, and rocky terrain safely and effectively.
Kasper expressed the value of partnering with small businesses through AFWERX for developing or adapting products to meet the specific needs of Airmen, emphasizing it as a synergistic force multiplier and hoping for continued support for such relationships throughout the Air Force.
TayCo Brace has made the XAB commercially available for procurement and collaborated with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to add the XAB to their medical Electronic Catalog (ECAT), facilitating easy procurement for the military. TayCo Brace is also involved in multiple SBIR R&D contracts through the AFWERX SBIR program, aimed at further reducing weight and profile while ruggedizing materials and design for military applications.
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