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Hypermobility: gymnasts or problems

This weekend I was lucky enough to watch the finals of the Olympic rhythmic gymnastics at Wembley Arena. The years of dedication that these athletes have committed to their sport was clear as they showed extraordinary balance, flexibility and co-ordination. Many of these gymnasts very clearly demonstrated joint hypermobility – something which has most probably allowed them to excel.

As with these athletes, many people with joint hypermobility never experience any pain or problems. However a small number of individuals may experience a variety of symptoms which can involve the gastro-intestinal, autonomic and musculoskeletal systems amongst others and this is known as joint hypermobility syndrome. Patients with this condition often report joint pain, muscle weakness, fatigue, joint instability and dizziness. Working regularly with individuals who have joint hypermobility syndrome, we treat many of these symptoms.  Patients have often commented how, in the past, their symptoms have worsened with physiotherapy or exercise. This can, understandably, make patients fearful of trying.

It is important for patients with hypermobility syndrome to be treated by someone who has experience in the field. It is crucial that the therapist has the experience to identify the most appropriate exercise and pace patients properly. Good communication with consultant rheumatologists, GPs and other health professionals is also vital. We do know that with careful management, many people respond well to exercise. Regular exercise can help patients to manage their condition independently and it can also help to improve their pain.

However, as a physiotherapist watching these elite gymnasts, it  was interesting to see how, with the correct training and muscle strengthening, hypermobility can be an advantage to some individuals. As I watched athletes move from splits to handstands with exceptional grace and elegance, even my perceptions of the capabilities of the human body were challenged and, while I don’t see myself as a contender for Rio 2016, I am convinced of the benefits of appropriate exercise.


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