How professional sport takes its toll on New Zealand's athletes

Arthritis, knee replacements and depression - this is the fate awaiting many of our top sportspeople. After a long career giving their body for their team, jersey and country, some athletes will face a future of diminished mobility and mental health issues.

AUT professor of human performance Patria Hume says elite sports can put players at risk of serious future health concerns.

"ACC statistics clearly show some sports have more severe knee injuries - those that involve a change of direction or sudden stopping such as rugby union, rugby league, and netball," Hume told Newshub.

"For running, if you're going to lots of running on hard surfaces you could expect issues with arthritis. Fast bowlers are more prone to back issues such as stress fractures. Swimmers have shoulder problems. Badminton and squash players have knee injuries. Anything with a change of direction on uneven surfaces can cause ankle injuries."

A UK study of elite rugby players post-retirement showed they suffer more osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, joint replacement hip and knee compared to the normal population. And a study in New Zealand showed 36 percent of elite rugby players had arthritis, compared to 6 percent of people who play non-contact sports.

"We've got evidence from the New Zealand Rugby health study that showed an increased risk of arthritis. That makes sense in terms of impacts resulting in musculoskeletal problems," Hume said.

"From a biomechanic point of view, with any overload of you've got an increased risk of detrimental health effects."

Nehe Milner-Skudder receives treatment for another injury.
Nehe Milner-Skudder receives treatment for another injury. Photo credit: Getty

There is also growing awareness about the risk concussions and brain injuries pose to players.

"There's research that shows that traumatic brain injury results in increased risk of depression and anxiety.

"International studies also show participants retired from rugby have reported higher than normal rates of depression and mild cognitive impairment."

Elite sports players also face a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease. An analysis of US NFL players found players were 2.5 times more likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease compared to Major League baseball players.

The injuries players suffer throughout their careers can affect their quality of life later on.

"If injuries are not appropriately managed, or if they're something like a brain injury sometimes you can have ongoing health effects," Hume said.

"If you have a musculoskeletal injury, because you've got damage to the bones and cartilage then often you have long-term detrimental impacts like arthritis."

Dealing with a knee injury.
Dealing with a knee injury. Photo credit: Getty

However, there are still benefits from having been fitter and stronger. Hume cites research showing people who played sport at a higher level were more likely to maintain adequate physical activity levels following retirement.

"We know that if we train there benefits for bodies.

"Physical activity has a range of health benefits, including preventing and managing long-term conditions such as heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, depression and Alzheimer's disease."

Her advice to players is to ensure appropriate progression of training loads to improve physical performance, focus on technique, get appropriate medical treatment as soon as possible, and gain advice on appropriate rehabilitation to return to activity.