A new UK study has shown that retired professional footballers face a higher risk of knee osteoarthritis.
The research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that former football professionals are far more prone to develop knee pain and osteoarthritis and face problems with their knees earlier in life than the average person.
However, it also showed that former footballers are less likely to suffer with other conditions or diseases such as diabetes, heart attacks and cancer.
The study was led by academics at the University of Nottingham and funded by Arthritis Research UK, with collaborative support from FMARC (FIFA’s Medical and Research Centre), the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and SPIRE Healthcare Group. It included 1,207 male ex-footballers and 4,085 men in the general population in the UK.
The researchers found that the prevalence of knee pain, radiographic knee osteoarthritis and total knee replacement were two to three times higher in the former footballers compared with men in the general population group. Knee injury was the main attributable risk factor.
“Even after adjustment for recognised risk factors, knee osteoarthritis appear to be an occupational hazard of professional football,” the researchers wrote.
Other findings showed that ex-footballers had more osteoarthritis in the end joints of their fingers; were more likely to have an index finger shorter than their ring finger — also known as a pattern three-digit ratio, which has been previously linked to osteoarthritis risk; and reported significantly more body pain, knee misalignment and use of painkillers.
So can anything be done to reduce the risk of arthritis?
The research suggests that reducing the number of significant knee injuries in professional football would have an important impact on the development of knee pain, knee osteoarthritis and the requirement for a knee replacement. Post-retirement from professional football, there could be modifiable risk factors such as obesity management and not engaging in other high-risk occupations.
Welcoming the research, the Football Association, PFA, Premier League and English Football League said in a joint statement: “Although there are multiple health benefits from playing football, we are also aware of the risks of intensive and prolonged training and playing at professional level.
“We understand that there are far-reaching and wider benefits of playing football, including overall quality of life and physical and mental well-being. However, it is important that we continue to support ex-professional players with the condition and use this new research to form practical guidance for current professional footballers and clubs to help minimise the risk of developing osteoarthritis.”