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Tendon research can save millions for the health system

  • 19 Jun 2018

What if an injury that creates a multi-million dollar burden on our health system could be treated differently? What if the number of routine surgeries was drastically reduced and susceptibility to further damage eradicated?

Tendons cost ACC more than $280 million a year.

And once you have an injury it cannot be repaired, only made functional, leaving you susceptible to further issues. Add to this that evidence suggests 20 per cent of us unknowingly have damaged tendons and the impact is immense. What if there was a better way?

These “what ifs” are constant questions for Dr David Musson. The Auckland 36-year-old has dedicated his career to researching tendons and has just been awarded a prestigious, senior research fellowship through funding from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation. This funding sets the stage for the University of Auckland to become a leading international authority in tendon research.
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“There are about 4000 tendons in the body – everywhere you’ve got muscle you’ve got a tendon sitting in-between the muscles and the bone” Dr Musson explains.

“Achilles’ injury is common in runners. But two of the tendons we do lots of work with are the rotator cuff tendons in the shoulder and hip tendons. And literature suggests around 20 percent of the population have tears in their tendons without knowing it.

“Think about what damage that could go on to do,” the Auckland doctor says. “It basically gets worse as you get older, with about 50 to 60 percent in their fifties having tears, and this just keeps on increasing. It is really surprising for so little to be known about something that affects so many people. It’s kind of like the underdog of the musculoskeletal system compared to joints, bone and cartilage.”

Dr Musson says that in 2016 $283 million was spent in New Zealand on tendon injuries.

“That’s people seeing physios as well as everything else ACC covers. It’s a huge business. Once you have this injury, you’re just more prone to injury again. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s really concerning with our aging population.”

He leads the Tendon and Orthopaedic Research Programme within the Bone and Joint Research Group of the Department of Medicine at the University of Auckland.

There are three parts to his research – understanding what causes tendon disease, understanding why tendons heal badly, and investigating treatments for better outcomes.

The Fellowship starts this month, June 2018, and involves collaboration with orthopaedic surgeons at Auckland and Counties Manukau District Health Boards.

“We had so many outstanding researchers apply for this award but David stood out as he was already working as a senior fellow and he had contributed so much to the research community locally, nationally and internationally. This fellowship is for five years which is very rare in today’s climate and is significant in that it provides our early-to-mid career researchers with a form of career stability and allows them to establish true independence in their work.”

Sue Brewster, AMRF Executive Director

 
A triathlete, Dr Musson understands how important it is for people to recover quickly from injury. With a growing older population that is increasingly active, better recovery rates improve quality of life and reduce the cost of health care.

“The number of surgeries is increasing at massive rates; 400 times increase over the last 10 years. But surgery only does so much, it doesn’t actually help the tendon heal, it just makes it functional again,” he says.

Originally from the UK, Musson spent part of his postgraduate researching tendons in the lab where he works now and “fell in love with New Zealand”. On the cusp of returning home in 2011, he was given AMRF funding to do a post-doctorate fellowship.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have support from AMRF throughout my career. They’re one of the reasons why I remain in New Zealand; my first scholarship was from them, along with couple of other projects. AMRF has absolutely helped me establish myself as a tendon researcher.”
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