The five-year study, the first of its kind, aims to establish how common the condition is among ex-players compared to the general population. It is being supported by the national charity Arthritis Research UK.
The findings could have implications far beyond the world of professional football and lead to greater awareness of how to avoid and prevent injuries for people who play sport at whatever level.
The study, Osteoarthritis Risk of Professional Footballers, is one of the biggest projects being carried out by a team at the Arthritis Research UK
Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis at the University. It is part funded by FIFA
, Spire Healthcare
and footballers’ charity Xpro
, and supported by the FA
Intensity of the sport
“Professional footballers appear especially prone to arthritis due to the intensity of the sport they play and the injuries sustained during their playing careers,” explains Dr Fernandes.
“They seem more likely to develop early onset osteoarthritis of their knee joints, for example. The results of our study will establish the prevalence of osteoarthritis among professional footballers compared to the normal male population and hopefully identify the specific risk factors for knee osteoarthritis in footballers.”
The study has the backing of Sir Trevor Brooking, who says: “A few years ago I had a knee replacement for my left knee and have benefited enormously from that successful operation in my daily work commitments. There’s very little research on this important topic, and the study will be of immense benefit to the current football community, and will help to direct the game for future generations of footballers.”
As part of the first phase of the study, the research team will work with football associations to recruit at least 18,000 ex-professional footballers over the age of 40 and ask them to fill in a questionnaire.
Impact on training
Questions will include how many games they played, how many hours they spent training, how long they played and at what level, whether they were injured, and whether they now have osteoarthritis and so on, enabling researchers to build up a detailed picture of their playing careers.
In the second phase of the study, 900 of the players who responded to the questionnaire will then have their knees x-rayed by Spire Healthcare’s research arm, Spire Perform, based at FA headquarters at St George’s Park, which will provide evidence of structural changes in their knees. This information will be mapped against the self-reported pain in the questionnaires.
The results of the questionnaires and the x-rays will then be compared against a control arm of 500 men recruited from the general population of Nottingham.
As well as having an impact on the way that footballers train, practise and play, the results will throw new light on training regimes and attitudes to fitness in the world of professional football, and how they have changed over the past 20 or so years.
After ageing and obesity, injury to a joint is the third major risk factor for developing osteoarthritis, which is the main reason for replacing a worn-out joint. Osteoarthritis is a major cause of disability, affecting more than eight million people in the UK, and leading to joint pain and stiffness.
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