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Sport Shocked by Study Which Reveals Threat of Killer Disease

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South African rugby great Joost van der Westhuizen lost his battle against MND in 2017. Photo: Reuters: Ian Waldie

By Alan Hubbard |

A few weeks ago, in the light of Andy Murray’s hip injury possibly leading to his premature retirement, we asked whether sport can seriously damage your health.

It was a question some considered impertinent rather than pertinent. I pointed out that while sports figures, by and large, are well paid for their endeavors, many are paying a high price for the games they play at the highest level.

Legions of ex-professional footballers are now walking – or rather hobbling – around waiting for knee or hip operations.

Even worse, they are suffering from dementia. The effects of heading the ball, as in the much-publicized case of the late forward Jeff Astle, have seen at least three of the surviving winning England World Cup squad of 1966 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Incipient and crippling arthritis is not now the greatest enemy facing many whose playing days are over.

For there is a more shocking revelation causing great concern.

An exhaustive new study, revealed last weekend in the UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday, has concluded that the risks of developing Motor Neurone Disease (MND) are more than eight times higher among those who sustain repeated blows to the head and spine in top level sport.

The study discounted the idea that blows to the head sustained in amateur or social sport could be a cause.

But repeated blows sustained at a high technical level, where competitors are faster and stronger, creates a much greater risk, according to the study – which identifies football, rugby, American football, hockey and motor racing as sports which might undertake further investigation into possible links. In the United States, American football has a much higher number of victims.  

However, curiously, boxing, so often criticized for its inherent dangers, is not listed. I mix regularly with the fight fraternity and I do not know of any British boxers who are “punchy” – although I did some years ago.

Yes, there are brain injuries and sometimes fatalities but these are rare these days with new safety regulations. There is no record of any boxer suffering from MND for which there is no cure and is inevitably fatal. But it is becoming disturbingly frequent in several areas of sport.

In the investigation, the authoritative journalist Ian Herbert exclusively revealed details of the most definitive investigation of its kind ever undertaken into cases of the deadly neurodegenerative disease.

Footballers Fernando Ricksen, Stephen Darby and Lenny Johnrose are high-profile sports cases that have brought a spotlight on the issue in the UK. The former England and Leeds football manager Don Revie, famous as a deep-lying centre-forward in his playing days, also suffered from the disease.

Half of those affected die within two years of being diagnosed with the rapidly progressing illness leaving people locked in a deteriorating body, unable to move, talk and eventually breathe.

Last August, Johnrose – a former midfielder who made more than 400 Football League appearances for Blackburn Rovers, Hartlepool, Bury, Burnley and Swansea City – went public for the first time about living with the illness.

Little over a decade since his playing career came to an end, the 48-year-old father-of-three, now a school teacher, admits he has already researched assisted dying as he fears the debilitating impact the illness will have.

Consultant spine surgeon Mike Hutton, a former rugby player who is now one of the study’s lead researchers, told the Mail on Sunday: “As far as we can see, there is a link.

“We now need more research to further investigate that link and to establish whether we need to adjust our approach to sports, as those who play them at the top level get faster and stronger.

“The results of our review found that the risk of developing ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis as MND is also known, was eight times more common in professional athletes prone to concussive or neck trauma. It was a figure that shocked us all.

“The love of rugby put my medical career on hold and took me to 400 first-class games for Richmond in both the amateur and professional era.

“However rugby has changed a great deal since then. The hits have got bigger and collisions more frequent and concerns are frequently expressed about the game’s safety.

“As a doctor I’ve watched the sport I love develop and I’ve seen the high-profile injuries like everyone else. Recently I watched as Doddie Weir declared that he had been diagnosed with the disorder, after Joost van der Westhuizen’s death from it.

“MND is a rare condition. So seeing two top players struck down with it, one after the other, was concerning. Both were star players during my time as a professional player. I played against Doddie in 1996 in a close-fought draw. He was immense.”

The study was welcomed by football and rugby’s governing bodies, as well as the Doddie Weir Foundation, which raises money for funding research into MND.

However all parties said that more research is needed into the disease, sometimes known as the ‘Athlete’s curse’ because it affects a disproportionate number of sports people. One or two people in every 100,000 are diagnosed with the disease each year.

The new findings are based on a review of 16 studies of incidence of the disease, undertaken by scientists from eight medical establishments worldwide. The experts were looking for evidence of whether playing organised competitive sport at either professional or amateur level, with or without repeated blows to the head and a cervical spine, created a greater risk.

It is the first attempt to pull together multiple previous studies which cover football, American football, basketball, athletics, ice skating and general sport.

The research goes nowhere near as far as a longitudinal study – monitoring the health of sportsmen and women over time compared with others from the general population – or an examination of post mortem evidence.

But despite a growing awareness of football and rugby players developing the dementia known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, there have been no long-term studies into MND’s possible links with individual sports.

A spokesperson for World Rugby said: “While this study is a review of published research over a number of years and therefore not qualitative or rugby specific, we welcome its publication and insights. 

“It does not address the actual risk, only a relative risk, while no rugby studies were included in the study. The key is further research.”

A Football Association (FA) spokesperson said: “The FA is committed to researching and examining all areas of head injuries in football, in particular around the long-term effects on players.”

So, does sport damage your health? The impertinent question suddenly has become even more pertinent.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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