THE BLOG

Why Do Some Sports Injuries Develop Into Osteoarthritis?

07/06/2013 11:47 BST | Updated 06/08/2013 10:12 BST

That's the question our brand new Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis aims to answer. You've probably read a few news stories recently about high profile sportspeople retiring from their career due to injury or ongoing joint problems. Although arguably one of the risks of playing intensive sport professionally, debilitating joint injuries aren't just a 'workplace hazard' for sports pros.

A poll carried out by Arthritis Research UK in 2011 found that in fact 40% of active people were worried about limited mobility and joint problems in the future, from the jogger experiencing the odd knee twinge to the Saturday afternoon rugby player concerned they may have had one clash too many.

The truth is, at the moment the science community doesn't yet have a definitive answer as to why some people's sports injuries develop into osteoarthritis later on in life, yet other people's do not.

There are two types of joint injury connected with sport and exercise - traumatic sports injuries associated with contact or collision sports such as rugby or football (eg joint sprain or instability), and overuse injuries associated with non-contact sports such as running or rowing (eg stress fracture).

An injury to the joint is one of the main risk factors for osteoarthritis, along with ageing and obesity. It's the most common form of arthritis, with approximately 8 million people in the UK affected. Contrary to popular belief, it can affect people at any age - I've had patients who needed hip replacements in their thirties - so reducing people's risk of developing the condition is a priority area of our research.

That's why we've brought together specialists in sports medicine and osteoarthritis for the first time in Europe, to combine their expertise and understand whether we can prevent or slow down degeneration of the joints through better injury treatments and screening tools. The results will benefit sports professionals, enthusiasts and casual players alike.

For example, young footballers are at particular risk from a potentially career-ending form of groin injury called femoro-acetabular impingement (FAI).The cause is not known but over-training as the hip joint is developing may play a role. In FAI the head of the thigh bone rubs against the socket, leading to intermittent groin or hip pain in the short term, and potentially osteoarthritis of the hip in the longer term.

Our researchers will scan young footballers aged nine from a number of professional football academies, using state-of-the-art MRI, every two years. They will be compared to two other same-age groups - ordinary schoolboys and also young elite athletes from other sports.

The sophisticated MRI scans will be able to pick up holes or cracks in cartilage and metabolic changes to cartilage and bone, so training movements could be modified or avoided to prevent injury occurring.

Other sport activities being investigated in the research include rugby, Olympic Games, horse racing and athletics.

We're delighted that the new £3m centre has backing from leading sports organisations including the International Olympic Committee, Rugby Football Union, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, UK Athletics, the FA and the Professional Footballers Association.

Work is taking place at seven universities led by Nottingham University Hospitals and the Universities of Nottingham and Oxford, and involves the Universities of Southampton, Bath, Loughborough, Leeds and University College London.

For more information about looking after your joints when exercising or to find out more about the research visit www.arthritisresearchuk.org.