Tackling the elephant in the room

To mark Bone and Joint Week, the Chairman of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance looks at the scale and impact of musculoskeletal conditions:

In 1814, Ivan Andreevich Krylov, a Russian poet, wrote a fable entitled The Inquisitive Man which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant.

This Bone and Joint Week, 12-20 October 2018, the saying ‘the elephant in the room’ will be in popular use as it’s the theme of a community-wide movement highlighting the importance of bone, joint and muscle conditions to living well.

So, why do we use the phrase ‘elephant in the room’ for these conditions? Well, consider these latest sobering facts:

  • 8 million people live with a musculoskeletal condition in the UK
  • One in five people consult a GP about a musculoskeletal problem every year
  • One in eight of the working population report having a condition of the bone, joints and muscles
  • Musculoskeletal conditions are the leading cause of disability, accounting for a huge 30.5% of years lived with disability.
  • In 2016 30.8 million working days were lost, that’s 22.4% of total sickness absence.

‘Elephant in the room’ because in society we often consider conditions of the bones, muscles and joints as inevitable, part of life, part of ageing, that nothing can be done about them. They affect everyday activities yet they are often not talked about, and pain is invisible.

‘Elephant in the room’ because good musculoskeletal health is fundamental to good health and being able to do what you want and need to do by giving you mobility and dexterity.

‘Elephant in the room’ because they are a growing problem, impacting the people, the workforce, social care and the economy. For example, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis costs £10.2 billion in the NHS and healthcare system now, and is expected to reach an estimated £118.6 billion in the next decade. Let’s champion good musculoskeletal health now to limit this.

Mark Twain said: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” The solution begins in acknowledging the scale and impact of musculoskeletal conditions.

By championing good musculoskeletal health over a lifetime, through birth, school years and throughout life, at national, local and individually level, we can challenge, and often prevent, the enormous impact of musculoskeletal conditions on people and society. People with musculoskeletal conditions should be supported to take a proactive role in their health to live well and independently, feeling confident and in control of their condition.

So let’s shift our mindset, musculoskeletal conditions are not inevitable, something can always be done to help. Nationally, locally and individually, we can make decisions that support good bone, joint and muscle health.

If we are brave enough to embrace this elephant in the room, there are large rewards, helping people to live better, live well.

You can find out more about how NHS England is working with ARMA to support the development of national musculoskeletal improvement plans on the NHS England website.

Professor Anthony Woolf

Professor Anthony Woolf is Chair of the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance (ARMA).

He is Honorary Professor of Rheumatology, University of Exeter Medical School, and Plymouth Peninsula Medical and Dental College, and Clinical Director of the NHS National Institute of Health Research Clinical Research Network Southwest Peninsula.

He is involved in various initiatives to raise awareness of the impact of musculoskeletal conditions and priority for education, prevention, treatment and research at a national, European and global level.

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