Sports injuries: detecting early injury-induced muscle damage

Detection of muscle injury in sport

Avoiding injury is crucial for success in sport. The problem is that most athletes only become aware of an injury once it has become major and performance hindering. Any test therefore that could flag early injuries before they become serious or chronic enough to sideline an athlete could be a godsend. But help could be at hand because new research carried out by Spanish scientists in this area seems particularly intriguing.
Their goal was to try and identify a reliable marker of muscle damage in athletes that measured not so much overall muscle breakdown, but muscle breakdown associated with injury. This is because all vigorous training causes a degree of muscle breakdown, but this is part and parcel of the normal training/recovery cycle. However, what the researchers wanted to do was find an abnormal marker of muscle breakdown associated with an actual injury to the muscle.

To do this, they compared the blood levels of a protein known as alpha-actin (which they suspected is associated with injured muscle) in 20 injured sportsmen and women (all with muscle injuries) with those from 48 uninjured athletes. This was done using two techniques known as Western blot and densitometry. All of the injured subjects also underwent physical examinations to determine the nature of the damage and these were also followed up with MRI scans to image the actual extent of the muscle damage. The results were additionally compared with previously obtained data on injured and uninjured non-sportspeople.
When they analysed the findings, they found that the mean blood concentration of alpha-actin was significantly higher in sportspeople with muscle damage (10.49microg/ml) than in uninjured sportspeople (3.99microg/ml). Moreover, compared to the non-injured athletes, blood samples from the injured sportspeople showed significantly higher levels of alpha-actin than that of troponin or myoglobin. This is significant because these two latter markers are associated with general muscle damage induced by heavy exercise, which indicates the alpha-actin test was able to successfully target and record damage caused by injury rather than by exercise per se.

The authors conclude that the alpha-actin test could be a very effective way of detecting early injury-induced muscle damage in athletes and therefore allow them to recieve earlier and more effective treatment and to return sooner to the practice of their sport.

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