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Researchers at the the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, University of Oxford are working with retired international rugby players to find out more about the long-term consequences of the sport on players’ health.

Researchers at the the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, University of Oxford are working with retired international rugby players to find out more about the long-term consequences of the sport on players’ health.

The study is being led by the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis, which aims to reduce the impact of sports injuries by examining the relationship between a range of sports and the subsequent risk of developing osteoarthritis.

Researchers involved in the project are collaborating with the Rugby Football Union and the Rugby Players’ Association to assess how playing and training as a rugby player might impact on a player’s health in the longer term. 

The study, which was piloted in 2014 with Oxford and Cambridge Rugby Blues, will be the first to extensively examine the consequences of playing rugby at both amateur and professional levels in England. This has been identified as a priority research area by both the Rugby Football Union and world rugby.

Lead researcher Madi Davies, from NDORMS, explained: “There are an increasing number of studies looking at match and training injuries across all levels of the game, but there is little research exploring the long-term positive and negative effects of playing the sport. As part of the wider aims of the centre, this study is designed to help us understand which injuries lead to long-term pain and disability, including osteoarthritis.”

Former England centre and 2003 World Cup winner Will Greenwood has endorsed the research, saying: “As a former professional rugby player I believe it is really important that we all understand the potential long-term health outcomes from playing the sport at a high level. This study will provide an insight into the health of former players, which can only be a good thing in terms of players being more informed, but also helping the sport look at how to manage both the short and long-term risks associated with injury.”

Up to 500 England international rugby players will fill in a questionnaire to assess their background, playing history, medical history, previous injury history, current general and musculoskeletal health and current level of activity. The research team will then produce a general health and injury and pain profile for retired players throughout their career and into their retirement, assessing how common osteoarthritis is within this group.

This will allow further study of risk factors for osteoarthritis, which causes joint pain and stiffness and affects more than eight million older people in the UK. There are currently few effective treatments other than joint replacement surgery.

Centre deputy director Professor Nigel Arden added: “The new study is one of several projects our centre is running to find out more about the effect of playing sports such as rugby, football and cricket on players’ joints in later life. The long-term benefits of exercise for overall heath far outweigh the risks associated with injury, and our centre aims to keep all people of all sporting abilities active and injury-free. Understanding the relationship between sports injuries and the developing of osteoarthritis – and aiming to prevent it – is at the heart of our research programme.”