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Sports research aims to help prevent and treat osteoarthritis

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UK researchers are investigating movement in elite sports in an effort to help prevent and treat osteoarthritis.

The studies funded by Arthritis Research UK aim to build understanding of the way athletes and professional sportspeople move and the stresses those movements place on their joints.

This insight will then be used to develop new approaches to treat the pain of osteoarthritis and to help people to exercise safely, reducing their risk of injury and of developing arthritis in the future, the charity explained.

Maria Stokes, Professor of Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation at the University of Southampton, is overseeing a series of studies which focus on what can be learnt from the world of professional football.

She said: “Our starting point has been to look at those sports where there’s a high incidence of joint problems and osteoarthritis amongst players and former players. For example, we know there is a much higher rate of joint replacements among professional footballers than among the general population. So, we’re working closely with the elite football community to learn from their experience and expertise and then to apply that knowledge to prevent and treat arthritis in the wider population.

“Our local team, Southampton FC, had a reputation for having far fewer injury problems than many other Premiership clubs, so we wanted to find out why this might be. They had developed a tailored training regime for their players and we’ve used elements of that, as well as a warm-up programme from FIFA, in the work we’re currently doing with young footballers.

“This warm-up exercise project is being led by physiotherapist Nadine Booysen and funded by the National Institute for Health Research. We’ve advised and encouraged young footballers to train using a specific set of exercises designed to wake up their muscles through the warm up and to get their joints moving in a way that reduces the amount of stress they’re under. We hope that by going out into local communities and getting young people started on this approach to training from an early age we’ll reduce their risk of injury, protect their joints from excessive stress and prevent them from getting arthritis in later life.”

As well as preventing osteoarthritis in future generations, the researchers hope their findings can be translated into practical solutions which will benefit people already living with osteoarthritis.

“We have anecdotal evidence which suggests the type of exercise regime we’re using with our young footballers could be used to help to reverse painful symptoms of arthritis,” Stokes said. “So, we’re planning new studies to test the effectiveness of this type of approach with different groups, including people already diagnosed with osteoarthritis.”