Aligning space travel with patient care
Astronaut reconditioning programmes could inform patient care on Earth
Research at the University of Southampton is bringing together two worlds: space exploration and health science.
Maria Stokes, Professor of Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation at the University, is heading up a team examining research in the fields of both astronaut reconditioning and the care of patients with musculoskeletal and neurological disorders, in a bid to find mutually beneficial lessons.
The disciplines are seemingly a world away from each other as people suffering from debilitating diseases are often forced to spend extended periods on bed rest, while astronauts are at the peak of mental and physical condition when they embark on missions into the solar system.
However, it is the prolonged periods in space that has prompted the drive to further investigate what more can be done to help recondition astronauts when they return after lengthy periods in micro-gravity conditions.
There are similarities between the muscle weakness in astronauts caused by weightlessness and weakness seen in people on Earth with different illnesses or injuries. We can learn from exercise programmes used by astronauts to help patients and vice versa.
Previous research had already found common ground that could lead to a better understanding in both fields. However, to further this research the European Space Agency set up a topical team of experts from several countries to help decide what research is needed to develop the most effective reconditioning exercise programmes.
Its findings could also be relevant to the emerging Space Tourism sector, where members of the public will need preparation and reconditioning programmes to suit their particular levels of health and fitness.
Maria was chosen as the co-chair of the project that has recently published some of its work in a series of papers. Maria says: “There are similarities between the muscle weakness in astronauts caused by weightlessness and weakness seen in people on Earth with different illnesses or injuries. We can learn from exercise programmes used by astronauts to help patients and vice versa.
We may also learn lessons from astronauts during and after longer missions, which could help people on Earth keep up a more active lifestyle and prevent illnesses.
“Astronauts work hard to stay fit in space, exercising for at least two hours a day, but still need an intensive recovery programme when they return to Earth. This retraining or reconditioning process as it is called, usually takes a few weeks to get them back to normal strength and fitness.”
The planned space missions to Mars will be much longer than time spent getting to the International Space Station (ISS), so will take longer to recover from.
It will take about six months to reach Mars, compared to only six hours to dock with the ISS. Therefore, it is vital that astronauts will need a reconditioning programme at the end of long spaceflight before they land on Mars, thus enabling them to perform skilled tasks safely and effectively.
The topical team is comprised of space scientists and astronauts, along with experts from different terrestrial scientific and medical disciplines including: physiotherapy, medicine, sport and exercise science, physiology, psychology and statistics.
The first task for the team was to find out what was already known about reconditioning of astronauts, and what was known about the effects of long periods in bed on muscles of people on Earth. Maria added: “It was very important to have astronauts and members of the ground staff at the European Space Agency who look after the astronauts’ health on the topical team. This was to make sure the scientists were aware of the challenges involved in reconditioning so that the team’s recommendations would be relevant to the real life situation.”
The topical team also explored similarities between muscle weakness and ways of overcoming it in astronauts and patients on Earth with different types of diseases, as well as athletes.
Identifying these parallels enabled the team to see how knowledge of diseases could be used to develop research programmes for astronauts, and how patients might then benefit from the research on astronauts.
Maria says: “Longer missions to Mars will challenge the psychological state of the astronaut. They will be more isolated and will not have the live link with ground staff that they have on the ISS, which helps keep them motivated to exercise each day.
“Other ways of helping to motivate them might be learnt from elite athletes who have to keep up long periods of intensive training.
“We may also learn lessons from astronauts during and after longer missions, which could help people on Earth keep up a more active lifestyle and prevent illnesses.”
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