A new study shows people playing top-level contact sport are eight-and-a-half times more likely to develop motor neuron disease.
Former Springboks Joost van der Westhuizen and Tinus Linee were diagnosed with MND in 2011 and 2013 respectively. Linee passed away in 2014, while Van der Westhuizen lost his battle against the illness in 2017.
Former Scotland and British & Irish Lions forward Doddie Weir is also fighting the crippling disease.
According to the DailyMail, the study – done by a group of scientists from various medical establishments worldwide – is the most definitive investigation of its kind ever undertaken and has concluded that the risks of developing MND are more than eight times higher among those who sustain repeated blows to the head and spine in top-level sport.
‘As far as we can see, there is a link,’ said consultant spine surgeon Mike Hutton, who is one of the study’s lead researchers.
‘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 findings, based on a review of 16 studies of incidence of the disease, led researchers to identify rugby, football, American football, hockey and motor racing as the sports codes that need further investigation.
‘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.
‘We think the numbers are significant — 8.5 times higher. There may be other factors. A certain body mass index or muscularity, which makes people more likely to play top-level sports of this kind. We are now imploring the medical community and sports governing bodies to commission longitudinal studies in this area so that we can better understand any preventative measures available.
World Rugby, the Doddie Weir Foundation as well as the FA (English Football Association) welcomed the research findings.
‘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 World Rugby spokesperson said.
Photo: Simphiwe Nkwali