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Osteoarthritis and osteoporosis more prevalent in former elite rugby players

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Former elite rugby union players are more likely to suffer from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, according to new research.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists at the Universities of Oxford and Bath found that former elite, male rugby union players are at a greater risk of suffering from osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, and having hip and knee replacements, than members of the general population.

The researchers used a self-report questionnaire to compare health outcomes between 259 former elite players, and 5,186 participants of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. They also compared health-related quality of life between former players and 2,981 participants from the Health Survey for England.

Results showed that rugby players aged 50 and over were more likely to suffer from physician-diagnosed osteoarthritis, site-specific joint replacement at the hip and knee, and osteoporosis. Meanwhile, reported problems in health-related quality of life were more prevalent for mobility, self-care, pain or discomfort and usual activities, but not for anxiety or depression.

Co-author of the study, Professor Keith Stokes, head of the Department for Health at Bath, commented: “This is an important first step in understanding the relationship between playing high-level sport and long-term bone and joint health. We need to be cautious about attributing cause-and-effect because we are comparing different populations, but the findings will help us to focus future research efforts in this area.”

Simon Kemp, chief medical officer at the Rugby Football Union (RFU), added: “Long-term player health is a key but, to date, relatively poorly understood area. We were delighted to collaborate in this important study and the findings help us to build a better understanding and more complete picture of both the short and long-term impacts of the sport, so we can continue to develop targeted and evidence based initiatives to support player welfare.”

The study was led by the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, which aims to reduce the impact of sports injuries by examining the relationship between a range of sports participation and the subsequent risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Dr Natalie Carter, head of research liaison and evaluation at Arthritis Research UK, said: “This study provides information for those who play the sport on the short and long-term risks and benefits associated with rugby. It is also hoped that further studies, building on this work, will generate better preventative advice and treatment for both professional and recreational sports players.”