Former rugby players suffer arthritis, joint replacements – Expert reaction

Former elite rugby players are at greater risk of osteoarthritis, joint replacement and osteoporosis compared to the rest of the population, according to data from the UK.

Comparing 259 former elite male rugby players to other similarly-aged participants of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that the former rugby players were more likely to report health issues related to pain and mobility.

Osteoarthritis was four times higher and joint replacement six times higher than the general population, although the former rugby players were less likely to have developed diabetes.

More information about the study is available on for registered journalists.

The SMC gathered expert reaction to the study, please feel free to use these comments in your reporting. 

Professor Patria Hume, Human Performance, School of Sport & Recreation, AUT, comments:

Is there any evidence for similar trends among New Zealand rugby players?

“Yes, in the NZ Rugby Health study a greater percentage of retired elite and community rugby players reported they had arthritis than retired non‐contact sport players (NZ population of similar age = 13‐25%, Elite Rugby = 36%, Community Rugby = 20%, Non-Contact Sport = 5%).”

Are these health issues linked to the high-impact nature of rugby?

“We do not know. The cross-sectional study design does not allow researchers to state any cause and effect relationship in either the NZ Rugby Health study or the UK study.”

Are there ways to mitigate the harm?

“High loads to joints may result in joint tissue damage which theoretically could progress to osteoarthritis. However, there is no cause and effect evidence for sport leading to osteoarthritis to date. Longitudinal studies taking into account the multiple factors that might influence arthritis (e.g. diet, access to medical treatment, load intensity and volume) have not been conducted.”

The Australian Science Media Centre also gathered expert reaction.

Dr Alasdair Dempsey is a Senior Lecturer within the School of Psychology and Exercise Science at Murdoch University

“It should be noted, as the authors pointed out in their study, that this was a survey of elite players, and does not necessarily reflect your average player.

“We know that osteoarthritis, for which joint replacement is the final treatment, is associated with injury and elite players are more likely to have sustained injuries due to higher impacts and greater exposure – more games and more training.

“Leg injuries leading to osteoarthritis occur at similar rates in non-contact sports like soccer and basketball.

“It should be noted that with appropriate training you can also reduce your risk of suffering such injuries.”