Over 260 top GAA players took part in the arthritis survey conducted this year, which was sponsored by the makers of Panadol and undertaken by consultant rheumatologist Dr Doug Veale.
Dr Veale found that 65% of players were suffering regular pain and stiffness in comparison with 10% in the general population. Over half the players said it made their lives uncomfortable, as it interfered with mild everyday activity, while one third said the pain was getting worse. One in two respondents knew an ex-player suffering from arthritis, while 61% of those surveyed associated playing GAA with arthritis and were concerned about it. Only 4% knew how to manage their arthritis risk.
Osteoarthritis is a painful condition involving damage to the joints and is usually caused by wear and tear. People are more likely to develop it as they get older and while there is no cure, doctors have developed programmes to reduce sufferers’ pain. In recent years researchers have become increasingly aware that participants in physical contact sports which involve pressure on the joints from jumping and running can develop arthritis at a much earlier age.
Among the teams who completed the confidential questionnaires were All-Ireland finalists and semi-finalists in both hurling and football, and provincial title-holders in football and hurling. Dr Veale said: “UK researchers have started to uncover high levels of arthritis due to wear-and-tear in professional footballers and that got me to thinking about GAA, a much more physical sport which, although amateur, has intense training levels.
“Our survey certainly indicates that there is an arthritis issue to be addressed at the top levels in the GAA, and that players and doctors are already concerned - practically every one of the 262 players who participated wanted more information on the condition.
“Everyone involved in the sport needs to look at strategies and educational initiatives which can reduce arthritis risk and manage the condition in those who have it. This should involve managers, players, doctors, trainers and physiotherapists to name just a few,” he said. Dr Veale suggested examining the guidelines on watering pitches, for example, as many GAA players felt their joint pain was worse after playing on hard summer pitches.
The St. Vincent’s Hospital consultant praised the team doctors who helped him compile the study, saying nearly all of them knew former county players with arthritis, some of whom faced serious problems such as disrupted sleep, interference with work and social activities and even joint replacement.
Donegal footballer John Gildea retired from inter-county competition this year at 33, having been a Donegal squad member since 1993. He has long believed there was a link between arthritis and a lengthy career in playing Gaelic football at the highest level: “Many players would have assumed this because of the huge number of games and training sessions we undertake at club and county level. That’s not to mention the injuries, knocks and strains that occur on top of all that wear and tear.
“Dr Veale’s research is an important development and it’s encouraging that so many GAA team doctors rowed in behind it. I’d be hopeful that this study could be a starting point for an in-depth look at arthritis in players and what can be done to lessen its impact.”
It would certainly be worth placing a fresh focus on team training, injury recovery programmes and arthritis education, said the Donegal midfielder. “My GP has advised me that I have arthritis,” said Gildea, “I feel it every day, particularly in the mornings and after driving or training. Midfielders in football are probably more at risk than most. We are up and down the field a lot and in the thick of physical encounters.”