By John Kerr 29/09/2017

Elite rugby players are a pretty fit and healthy bunch, but new research suggests the strain of top-level rugby can take its toll on the body later in life.

A new University of Oxford study, published today in Scientific Reports, finds that retired elite rugby players are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, joint replacement, and site-specific joint replacement at the hip and knee, compared to average people of the same age. The authors also found that rugby players were twice as likely to report problems related to mobility and pain or discomfort.

The research is based on a health survey of over 250 retired elite UK rugby players, with the results compared to survey data from the general population.

While the increased pain and joint problems is a concern, it’s not all negative; the authors also noted rugby players were less likely than the general population to suffer diabetes or high blood pressure.

The researchers recommend providing targeted osteoarthritis education and advice to retiring elite players. They also say more research is needed to understand exactly how playing high-level rugby contributes to later joint and bone problems – and how to prevent them.

Read more about the research on


Similar results in NZ rugby

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Lead researcher of the NZ Rugby Health study, Prof Patria Hume from AUT.

The study was based on players in the UK, but the findings line up with data from New Zealand. The NZ Rugby Health study conducted in 2015 also found that ex-professional rugby players had far higher rates of arthritis than people of the same age who played non-contact sports like cricket or hockey. Thirty-six percent of elite rugby players in the study reported they had arthritis, while only five percent of people who played non-contact sports suffered arthritis (the baseline rate for New Zealanders of a similar age is between 13 and 25 percent).

In light of the new Oxford study, the Science Media Centre put some questions to the lead researcher of the NZ study, Professor Patria Hume from the AUT School of Sport & Recreation:

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.”

Worth it?

Given the increased incidence of painful physical conditions in older age, you might think the retired rugby players carried a sense of regret about their involvement in the sport. That’s not the case, the UK paper reports:

Rugby participants were asked whether considering the risks and benefits of their previous participation in rugby, they would do the same again, and 94% of rugby participants either agreed, or strongly agreed.

Likewise in the 2015 New Zealand study:

As part of the research, retired players were asked – given what they know now about their health and the risks involved in their sport – whether they would choose to do it all over again if they could travel back in time to the beginning of their sports career. The answer was absolutely. The average rating was 4.6 ±1.1, using a rating scale of 1=no way and 5=absolutely.


Featured image: Wikimedia / jeanfrancois beausejour.