Many professional footballers end up paying a high price for stardom
developing osteoarthritis (OA) in later life, according to research conducted by Andy
Turner in Coventry Universitys Psychosocial Rheumatology Research Centre.
Diagnosed with osteoarthritis himself at the age of 28 - as the result of Sunday league
football injuries - Andy was keen to research how many ex-professional footballers have
arthritis, and how it affects their quality of life.
"I thought it would be interesting to find out how former elite players, whose
careers were characterised by physical strength and grace, coped with a chronic and
explains Andy, who conducted the research in conjunction with the Centre's Director
Professor Julie Barlow.
284 current and former players returned Andy's questionnaire, which was designed to
find out not just the long-term physical effects, but also the social and economic
consequences of a life in professional football. Of the 284, 49 per cent have
The average age at diagnosis was 40. Comparable figures for the general population show
that less than 10 per cent of males aged 35-44 develop the disease. 59 per cent of all
former players had received a steroid injection during their career, with the majority
reporting not having enough time to recover before playing again.
For some respondents no amount of physical hardship diminished their love of the game:
"My problem was not knowing what was going on when injured. I had cortisone
injections to get me playing, it felt good until I was in my thirties. Since then I have
great pain and I am crippled. I dread to think how it will be in another five years. I
take three amounts of pills to kill the pain, approximately nine to 12 pills per
Another respondent commented:
"The state of my knees is definitely the result of my football career,
particularly the fact that I was a defender but, in no way, had I known then what the
result of playing would be, would I have changed anything. I loved my football. I am
hoping that my forthcoming knee replacements will further extend my physical
Andy's research also measures the players health-related quality of life, as well
as their level of depression and anxiety. Former players with osteoarthritis rated their
current and future physical health significantly lower. Although both groups of former
players reported problems, those with OA were worse affected. 68 per cent of former
players with OA reported problems walking about, 61 per cent reported problems with
self-care activities such as washing an dressing, and performing usual activities such as
work, housework and leisure. 89 per cent reported being in moderate to extreme pain.
Players with OA were also more likely to suffer from depression, with 25 per cent
scoring eight or above on a depression scale, indicating possible mood disorder.
Injuries picked up on the pitch came back to haunt them, with 15 per cent of all
respondents now registered disabled - the vast majority of whom had OA. 16 per cent of all
respondents said that their injuries had affected their work opportunities, leading to
early retirement or changes in work patterns, such as working less hours.
"On retiring I became an FA coach working all over the world, but as the arthritis
got worse I had to turn coaching position down due to the fact I could not demonstrate or
run. It has cost me my career and salaries", said one respondent.
Another respondent with OA said:
"Limited to the type of job I could do. Had to retire at 52 from work because of
constant pain. Now taking ten tablets per day. Extreme loss of income. No support from
An unexpected finding from the research was that several respondents complained of
either constant migraines, feelings of dizziness or cognitive/memory problems, with some
respondents and their GPs attributing these problems to repeatedly heading a football. The
Professional Footballers Association (PFA) has recently announced that it intends to
conduct its own research into this area.
"It is easy to diminish the problems reported by the respondents as a price
worth paying for the glamour, fame and riches, but only about 800 of the UK's 2,600
professional players earn their living in the Premiership. In the lower divisions, many
players earn little more than the spectators", said Andy.
"As the pressures intensify on the players, in terms of more competitive games and
a quicker return after injury, it is probably reasonable to assume that pain and
disability will remain a predominant feature of life after the Beautiful Game
", concludes Andy.