The rise of digital MSK solutions: Why investors are spending millions on digital pain management

The sedentary lifestyle of the modern world has worsened as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to restrict basic movement. Substantial reduction of physical activity in everyday life exposes people to a higher risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, and increases the likelihood of chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) pain. This public health concern, however, yields new opportunities, as digital MSK companies and their pain management service offerings are starting to get significant attention from investors.

In today’s world, it is no longer uncommon to be stuck behind a desk, in a car, or even on a couch for most of the day. Drastic technological advances have not only reduced the physical intensity of our jobs but also provided us with a broad range of conveniences in our daily lives. This in turn has perpetuated a modern, yet sedentary lifestyle. In fact, according to the WHO, between 60-85% of the world’s population both in developed and developing nations lead a life lacking sufficient physical activity, making it a very serious, yet insufficiently addressed public health problem of our time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation as lockdowns and home office have resulted in the disappearance of daily commute and an increase in the time spent sitting. In the US, a study found that people are on average spending an additional four hours each day sitting while at home during the pandemic. This has correspondingly led to a decrease in physical activity by one third among the active population.

A sedentary lifestyle poses a significant risk to people’s health as it increases the chances of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and corresponding comorbidities. Studies have also linked physical inactivity, and prolonged sitting with developing musculoskeletal conditions such as back pain. Indeed, in many countries, it is often a major cause for employee sick leave. Prolonged sitting results in stiffness and the weakening of muscles. This can cause poor posture and eventually lead to chronic pain in the neck and back. If left untreated the patient may suffer from further complicated and more painful conditions.

This public health scenario is a matter of serious concern. However, it also seems to have created a fresh opportunity in the digital health industry as early digital musculoskeletal (MSK) companies are starting to receive significant attention from investors. Some notable ones are mentioned below:

Hinge Health

Earlier this year, San Francisco-based MSK therapy company Hinge Health raised $300 million in Series D round. The funding round enabled the company to achieve a total valuation of $3 billion, making it one of the most valuable startups in digital health. Hinge Health provides therapy programs for early-stage prevention, acute pain, chronic pain, or surgical rehabilitation. It also offers users wearable sensors to guide them through MSK exercises, ensuring they perform them correctly. Very recently, Hinge Health bought Enso, a type of non-invasive electrical nerve stimulation device for MSK pain relief. It claims to reduce patient dependency on medication (e.g. opioids).

Physera and Upright Health

MSK conditions are comorbidities of diabetes. Thus, they are of interest to digital diabetes management companies looking to expand their service portfolio. In the middle of last year, during the hype of telehealth acquisitions, Omada, a major player in the digital diabetes market, acquired virtual physical therapy company Physera for $30 million. In addition to the video consultations, Physera provides its users with a plan to self-manage muscle and joint pain.

In January 2021, Israeli digital diabetes company Dario Health acquired Upright for $31 million, expanding its service offerings to include MSK conditions. Upright reportedly has 90,000 active users and is recommended by hundreds of clinics worldwide.

Both Dario and Omada claim that providing preventative MSK therapy will reduce healthcare costs for employers and improve productivity by reducing absenteeism amongst employees, particularly from back pain.

There are three key drivers of success for digital MSK solutions!

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Let’s explore each of the drives of success for digital MSK solutions:

  • Large market potential: Different estimates place the global market for managing musculoskeletal pain in the region of several billion. While existing solutions consist of both pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments and interventions (i.e. education & exercise therapy), there is a need to develop preventative therapies that can conduct early diagnosis, reverse, halt or slow down disease progression.
  • Excellent digital use case: Although few, digital MSK solutions have already achieved significant maturity. They include sensor technology to ensure correct body movement during exercise, offer a curriculum of exercises and tips for disease recovery and provide guidance to their users through physical therapists, coaches, AI and educational materials. This has already made them attractive to patients, employers (customers), and investors alike, and enabled them to accumulate an ever-increasing user base.
  • Integration potential: Lastly, as observed from the existing solutions (i.e Omada and Physera), companies can also address MSK pain management as part of a comprehensive platform strategy to treat multiple disease conditions.

Digital MSK solutions will become ever more important, given the sedentary lifestyle led by a large section of the population – even more so during this pandemic. Early market players are already gaining attention and showing promise. However, more can be done. Digital health service providers should innovate to develop solutions that can provide early diagnosis for MSK pain and help curb disease progression. Pharma and MedTech companies, with their extensive knowledge of various disease areas, also have a crucial role to play in making digital pain management solutions a success.

Find out more about the market potential of MSK solutions. Get in touch.

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