Half of former footballers suffer from serious health problems, study shows

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Professional footballers pay a heavy price for their success when they hang up their boots - with their health.

Professional footballers pay a heavy price for their success when they hang up their boots - with their health.

The stars of today's game enjoy the trappings of fame and extraordinary wealth but they face a life racked by aches and pains in the future, according to research.

A survey of 284 former professional footballers found almost half had serious health problems, mainly affecting their joints. The knee suffered most damage. Almost one in two of the former players had the chronic joint disease osteoarthritis, most often affecting the knee. The average age at diagnosis was 40 but some said pain had forced them to give up their career.

Now mostly in their mid-fifties, two-thirds had played in the Premier League (formerly known as Division One) and had competed in an average 450 games each.

The findings have wider implications for all those involved in football, say the researchers from the University of Coventry. Professional players are at most risk and the Football Association is collecting figures on all injuries to professional players in England and Wales as part of two-year research project to assess the risks.

The new study, published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, shows the "considerable" long-term impact of playing professional football. The effects are psychological as well as physical, with many former footballers suffering depression, it says.

Former players affected by osteoarthritis said the condition had forced them to stop careers in coaching, pushed them into early retirement and reduced their earnings.

Of the 284 players, 83 had osteoarthritis in two or more joints. Among the 43 registered disabled, three-quarters had osteoarthritis. This is the most common form of arthritis and is caused by damage to the cartilage of joints. It normally affects people in their sixties, particularly in their hips, knees and lower back. There is no cure, but joint replacements can ease the pain.

The researchers from Coventry University questioned former United Kingdom professional footballers who were 56 years old on average, and were about 32 when they retired. One-third of the group had had surgery since retiring.

Many former players claim that they were poorly treated during their playing careers and were often given injections of cortisone after a clash on the pitch to ease swelling and inflammation. Cortisone injections are now limited to no more than one a year per player.

The Professional Footballers Association has threatened to sue football clubs for injuries suffered by former players unless adequate compensation packages can be agreed.

However, the Football Association has denied that clubs were negligent. It said medical knowledge had improved and they could not be held responsible for problems that developed many years ago when the risks were less well known.

Former Liverpool player Tommy Smith can now barely walk. He has been declared 40 per cent disabled by osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.