Tendon health is extremely important for an athlete, especially when they perform at the highest level such as the Olympics being held in London this summer. Tendon injuries can sideline an athlete for a long period of time, and can even ruin his or her career. Tendon disorders cost the United Kingdom close to the U.S.-equivalent of eleven billion dollars annually. A study performed at Queen Mary, University of London found that a component of tendons known as the interfascicular matrix (IFM) is essential for their function.1
Scientists at Queen Mary are collaborating with colleagues from the University of Liverpool and University College London on a project that requires dissecting horse tendons to better understand the role of the IFM. This research is being funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board. Tendon injuries are very common in horses, just as they are in humans, and cost roughly the U.S.-equivalent of four and a half billion dollars per year in horse racing in the U.K. Among the 16,000 horses that train per year, the tendon injury rate is as high as 43%. Unfortunately, horses that suffer these injuries rarely return to racing.2
“Tendon disorders are highly debilitating and painful, and may herald the end of an Olympic athlete’s career,” said study co-author Dr. Hazel Screen, a senior lecturer in medical engineering at Queen Mary, University of London. She continued:
Even today, with advancements in sports science, little is known about tendon health management, and we still do not understand why some people are more prone to tendon injury than others. However, we have now found that the matrix which binds the fascicles together in the tendon, the IFM, is essential for tendon function and that changes to this structure may be responsible for tendon injury.3
Lead author Dr. Chavaunne Thorpe, from the School of Engineering and Materials Science at Queen Mary, University of London explained:
A specific tendon in horses known as the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) stretches and recoils in the same way as the Achilles tendon and is injured in the same way. We tested how the components within the SDFT worked to enable the tendon to stretch and function effectively.
When we looked at its capacity to stretch, we found that the IFM, previously thought to be unimportant in tendon function, was essential to SDFT extension in horses. We found that tendons with a stiffer IFM were not able to stretch as far before they failed.
It is possible with the findings from this research that many common tendon injuries in athletes, as well as horses, can be prevented. Dr. Screen noted: “If we are able to manipulate the IFM, we could potentially design a diagnostic test to see whether someone is more susceptible to tendon injury than others, and also pave the way for prospective treatments.”4