PROFESSIONAL footballers are at a far higher risk of developing osteoarthritis after retiring from the game, compared to the average person. This is according to an analysis, led by researchers from the University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK, and funded by the charity Arthritis Research UK, which outlines some of the benefits and risks associated with playing football professionally.
The study, which is the largest and most comprehensive study in the world to observe the levels of knee pain, osteoarthritis, and knee replacements in former male professional footballers, compared >1,200 ex-footballers from across the UK who had an average age of 59 years with >4,000 members of the general public from the East Midlands area of the UK whose average age was 62.8 years. The research also sought to establish whether other factors play a part in the onset of these conditions.
It was found that, following adjustments for risk factors such as a previous knee injury, former footballers were 2–3-times more likely than the average person to have knee pain, knee osteoarthritis, and require a total knee replacement. Knee replacements were particularly prevalent in the younger age groups (40–54 years). Additionally, body pain, knee misalignment, and use of painkillers was reported to a much greater degree in ex-footballers; however, this cohort were less likely to have developed conditions such as diabetes, heart attacks, and cancer than the general population, emphasising the benefits of regular exercise.
The biggest factor for the greater extent of knee osteoarthritis in retired footballers, according to the study authors, is thought to be the repetitive microtrauma that professional footballers experience during their career. It was also suggested that there were avoidable risk factors, such as obesity.
“Studies that focus on elite athletes, such as professional footballers, are useful in understanding the long-term impact of specific movements on musculoskeletal health, especially those associated with sports. Ultimately, this can pinpoint specific links and risk factors for osteoarthritis leading to effective ways to treat it and prevent its development,” said Dr Stephen Simpson, Director of Research & Programmes, Arthritis Research UK.
It is hoped that the findings from this study will provide the basis for new guidance for reducing the risk of osteoarthritis for current professional footballers.
James Coker, Senior Editorial Assistant