Rugby union players more likely to develop knee arthritis

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knee replacement surgery in rugby

We all know what a tough code rugby union is, but a new study – led by the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis at the University of Oxford – has spelled out just how gruelling it is.

Researchers discovered that rugby players aged 50 and above were more likely to suffer from physician-diagnosed osteoarthritis, site-specific joint replacement such as knee replacement surgery and osteoporosis when compared to non-players. Furthermore, reported problems in health-related quality of life were more prevalent for mobility, self-care, pain or discomfort and usual activities.

Consequently, the researchers have called for specific monitoring of rugby players in order to analyse and address the particular demands that the sport puts on its players.

Over 50 years of hurt

While it’s a given that sports participation – particularly sports such as rugby, which encourage movement and tests of strength – are very adept in promoting musculoskeletal health, the high-impact nature of the code means that it’s saddled with a higher rate of injury than other sports. And the study – which examined morbidity and health-related quality of life trends among 259 former elite-level rugby players compared to the general population, found that the price to pay for a rugby career was a higher occurrence of osteoarthritis, joint replacement and osteoporosis.

The results, which were published in the journal Scientific Reports, also pointed out that more former players experienced a quality-of-life impact as a result of mobility and pain or discomfort issues, which affected their ability to take part in usual activities and self-care.

However, the news isn’t all bad. When questioned about their opinions of playing the sport, 95% of former players claimed that considering the risks and benefits of their previous participation in rugby union, they would do it all over again – and 78% of them would recommend the sport to their children, relatives and close friends. And when it came to issues of anxiety and depression, the survey reported that rugby players fared better than their non-playing peers, as well as having a reduced risk of diabetes.

Players and physicians in union

As we have reported in previous posts, the attention to detail in risk management in contact and non-contact sports is being ramped up, and for good reason. As the researchers of this study concluded; “The magnitude of musculoskeletal morbidity in this population warrants proactive education and management within this at-risk sporting population. Further research in other sports may encourage the adoption of a more proactive approach to long-term health within elite and recreational sports, encouraging healthy sporting activity for all participants.”

The administrators of code are fully on board with their sport being put under the microscope, too. “Long-term player health is a key but, to date, relatively poorly understood area,” claimed Simon Kemp, the RFU’s chief medical officer. “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.”