Playing soccer with chronic pain: is it worth it?

A survey of 100 ex-soccer players showed that 36% of them now lived with osteoarthritis, a remarkable number considering that the participants were aged between 36 and 44. Joint pain is not uncommon among players and many are at risk of developing arthritis if they do not take measures to prevent its onset.  Many soccer players have learned to accept that the profession comes at a cost to their physical health. Ronaldo is reported to play through pain caused by an injury on the field from 2013-2014, and he states that many players carry on playing despite their injuries. Due to the success of many soccer players, there are challenges to giving up the sport entirely. How can the pain be managed and what are the long term effects of playing with chronic pain?

Types of chronic pain in soccer players

Former professional soccer players from Brazil were assessed for their level of health after retiring from the sport, with 97% found to have knee pain. Knee inflammation and chronic pain is a common injury among professionals, with many continuing to play the sport despite their pain. Ligament injuries such as Achilles tendon strain can also cause problems in soccer players as it can be overused during training. Soccer players often have added stress placed on their calf muscles, particularly when training. When playing, the neck and head are left largely unprotected. This can result in frequent neck strain if players header the ball. Many players forget to strengthen their neck muscles, which can often lead to severe long term discomfort and strain. Added to this, there is a risk of brain injury or concussive damage.  

Impact of chronic pain

Goalkeepers may live with wrist and finger repetitive strain injuries. A study published in 2019 showed deficits in the hands of goalkeepers, as well as a prevalence of joint and ligament injuries in the fingers. This indicates that goalkeepers may have trouble later in life using their hands for simple tasks and it is hypothesized that this may be the beginnings of degenerative conditions. The impact of chronic pain is widely documented, with people having related mental health conditions and difficulty in performing daily tasks without assistance. During a soccer player’s career, their training schedule and the type of training undertaken may have to be adapted to accommodate chronic pain. It can also act to prevent the pain and injury worsening and therefore slow down long term impacts. Specialist coaches can show athletes how to gain better control over their movement, for example by using appropriate stretching and cool down exercises.

Lifestyle changes

Adapting to chronic pain can mean making some changes in your lifestyle and planning ahead before training or playing. Chronic pain caused by work can often lead to players being left on the bench or having to sit out on major tournaments due to their pain levels. Protective equipment at work is as important to soccer players as it is to anyone else in other fields, therefore checking that they have well fitting shin guards and soccer boots is key to prevention. Players do often need time to regenerate and recover when taking part in high impact sports. Examining lifestyle choices including diet, consumption of alcohol and resting periods is important when soccer players are living with chronic pain. Physiotherapy has also been shown to improve the lives of those with chronic injuries, and many soccer players may find that practicing mindfulness techniques or yoga can act as a way to improve coping strategies.

 A study published in 2013 showed that a specialized exercise program for knee injuries can actually help those with osteoarthritis, by increasing lower extremity muscle strength. As each individual has different pain thresholds and tolerance levels, soccer training and continued play is possible. However, soccer players may need to incorporate some preventative measures into their personal lives to halt the progression of long term pain and degenerative conditions. It is purely the choice of the player whether they feel able to continue in their career, but preventative measures made on the field by managers and soccer associations may be able to reduce the stigma surrounding the subject of injury.

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