UK’s Center on Muscle Biology studies the role of strength in recovering from injury


Do you own a business in which your employees are physically active? Do they get sore or fatigued or injured and miss time on the job, reducing your firm’s overall productivity? Then the work of the University of Kentucky’s Center on Muscle Biology may be of interest to you.

“We have people very interested in muscles in a work context, such as how the back moves and the muscles move around the back — also, the idea of maintaining proper muscle function to avoid injury,” explained Karyn Esser, the center’s director.

“If your muscles are healthy, they help protect the joints, whether they’re in the spine, hip or knees. Something like osteoarthritis, which is fairly common, is precipitated by problems with the muscles in that area,” Esser said.

The Center for Muscle Biology was established in 2008 to support and integrate muscle research across the university. It includes 42 members from nine different colleges, working together. They come from colleges dealing with, as one might expect, medicine, nursing, health sciences and gerontology, but colleges such as dentistry (facial and oral muscles) and even agriculture (farm animal injuries) are represented as well.

Esser said unless a person is an athlete, he or she probably doesn’t think much about muscles, but they contribute to good health. Esser estimates 30 percent of cancer patients die because their muscles are weak. Some heart failure patients die not just because of their damaged heart muscle, but because other muscles are so weak they can’t breathe normally.

Esser and her team are getting the word out to the community that muscles matter. “Pay attention to them,” she said. “In cancer patients, maybe the disease isn’t actually in the muscle, but if you keep the muscle healthy, you improve patient outcomes.”

The center has communicated that concept to Dr. Michael Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs at UK. If health care providers and patients can “make time to maintain muscle health,” Esser said, that can contribute to lower hospital expenses, reduced lengths of stay for patients and shortened rehab time, not to mention fewer sick days and minimized insurance claims.

“Costs will go down,” Esser said. “There’s data out there on that.”

The UK Center on Muscle Biology is one of few such centers in the United States. “There are some good ones, but we’re the biggest and only center I know of that focuses mainly on muscle weakness, primarily in adults,” Esser said.

But how can businesses benefit? Esser said employers could suggest certain exercises to employees to strengthen particular muscles. Which ones, exactly, depends on the requirements of the  individual’s job. Basketball players, for example, strengthen different muscles than golfers do. It’s not about workers bulking up their muscles, Esser said, but keeping them healthy, strong and efficient in their ability to use energy and generate force.

“If there is interest in that, we’d work with them to identify muscle groups involved in the work and the kind of force requirements necessary. Then we could design a program to help workers keep those muscle groups healthy for the job.” Esser said.

Dr. Brian Noehren is a researcher and assistant professor in UK’s Division of Physical Therapy. He studies chronic conditions of the musculoskeletal system such as chronic knee pain and fibromyalgia.

“Our research is designed to develop treatment intervention to lessen people’s pain and fatigue. By doing that, I believe it will provide direct improvement in productivity at work. If you’re tired or in pain all the time, you’re less focused and energized,” Noehren said.

The UK scientists study the musculoskeletal conditions that result in a lot of missed time at work and diminished performance.

“If you don’t have an injury and you’re healthy and feeling good, you’re more likely to be a productive worker and have lower health care costs,” Noehren said.

His lab accurately gauges how people walk, run and move. It measures muscle function to determine if there are alterations in the way people move that cause pain. There is also an injury clinic in the lab for runners who want their running styles analyzed.

“We give a very detailed analysis that you can only get at a few very large medical centers in the United States, like Harvard University and the University of Virginia,” added Noehren.

Like Esser, Noehren is open to advising businesses on employee job-related health issues. He has given talks to groups of active people at places like John’s Run/Walk Shop and the YMCA, both in Lexington, and is willing to do more.

“I’m on the research side of the fence, but if I were a business owner, I‘d want my employees to be happy, not tired or in pain,” Noehren said. “Our research studies the factors that cause you to feel that way. Our goal is to help alleviate those conditions.”

 “I’d like for us to be recognized in the community and to be a source of pride,” Noehren added. “Our basketball teams are amazing, and we have a lot of great academic programs here, but many people don’t realize what some of these centers do on campus. There are amazing scientists at work here.”

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