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Health monitoring on the International Space Station provides inspiration for helping patients in Cwm Taf

Research being undertaken by a clinician in Merthyr Tydfil, using a device that has been pioneered by the European Space Agency, could potentially help to reduce falls in elderly patients and detect tendon injuries in athletes in Cwm Taf University Health Board.

Gafin Morgan, an advanced podiatrist at Prince Charles Hospital, who specialises in foot and ankle injuries, is carrying out the world’s first piece of research into whether a hand-held device called a Myoton, which is used to measure muscle loss in astronauts, could benefit the wider population. He believes it could provide valuable early indicators of muscle and tendon loss in elderly patients which could reduce the risk of falling. There are also potential benefits to detecting problems with tendons in athletes.

Maintaining muscle strength in Space is very difficult as there is no gravity so the muscle and tendon strength of all astronauts is monitored carefully. Measurements of calf muscles before and after a mission on the International Space Station show that even when crew members carry out resistance exercises daily, muscle volume still decreases significantly.

Gafin, who has worked in Cwm Taf for more than 20 years, obtained the device by linking up with University researchers in Germany and Estonia who shared an interest in lower limb injuries. He has since conducted research on the impact of early measurements on 50 local patients with Achilles tendons problems which he presented at Cwm Taf University Health Board’s annual Research and Development conference.

The data is expected to be published soon and he hopes to build on the early results by researching the impact on elderly patients.

“If the device can detect early onset muscle loss in astronauts, then why not in our elderly patients?, said Gafin who conducted the research in addition to his daily role. “If we can treat some of the problems early to make patients stronger and more stable it could have a significant impact on falls and the implications of fall injuries.

“I had not done research before and I have to say it was all a bit daunting at first, but I have had so much support from the health board and from patients willing to take part. I am very excited about the real benefits the research could now bring to frontline care.”

Day to day Gafin’s role involves treating patients who have foot or ankle injuries; triaging patients who may be able to avoid surgery through conservative management. He works closely with Orthopaedic Surgeons, the A&E departments and as part of the Clinical Musculoskeletal Assessment Service (CMAT) links with primary care to identify patients who could be treated without invasive operations.

His approach to the management of Achilles tendon ruptures with a specialist rehabilitation boot has resulted in better outcomes for patients saving the health board more than £250,000 a year through avoiding unnecessary surgery and hospital stays.

“It’s all about prudent healthcare and doing everything we can do first before opting for surgery which often brings its own problems such as the risk of infection, and potential nerve damage,” he explains. “By working together with GPs and their primary care teams and with hospital colleagues we can now assess and treat more patients conservatively without surgery which is far better for the patient in the long term.”