Sports Injuries

Updated 14 May 2018

Are sportsmen prone to specific injuries?

An inherited tendency to weakness in certain areas can make sportsmen prone to specific types of injury.

Studies into the link between genetics, sports performance and sports-related injuries become more involved.

Malcolm Collins (PhD, Associate Professor and Chief Specialist Scientist at the Medical Research Council and UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine) says that while the role of genetics in sports performance is an area of continued research, it's believed that both genetic and non-genetic factors determine sporting performance.

“Some people are born with the ‘right’ genes and have the passion and motivation to train and make the most of their genetic gift for a certain sport, they have what we call, the ‘whole package’. However, this is a very complex field as there is no one specific gene that can be pinpointed, it’s a complex make-up that is still being studied.”

Are some athletes genetically predisposed to injury?

Although Collins says this is a very new and ongoing area of research, there does seem to be evidence that certain people may have a genetic tendency towards certain injuries.

In a research paper he wrote for the British Medical Journal in 2009, titled Genetic risk factors for soft-tissue injuries 101: a practical summary to help clinicians understand the role of genetics and ‘personalised medicine’, Collins wrote that “specific genetic elements have been identified for certain soft-tissue injuries”.

In the paper, he describes how there may be a familial predisposition and/or an association of specific genetic sequence variants for conditions affecting the Achilles and rotor cuff tendons, as well as for shoulder dislocation and cruciate ligament ruptures.

This means that depending on one’s genetic make-up, some people are at a higher risk of certain injuries and it would therefore take less of a load or impact for them to be injured in this way.

So this could indeed be the cause of Bakkies’ recurring Achilles injury - although as Collins says, the research is ongoing. 

Genetic testing of athletes

While it would be amazing for everyone from professional athletes to recreational ones to be tested to see if they are indeed the ‘whole package’ and which injuries they may be more prone to, Collins says this is still a premature hope.

“You can’t take a single athlete and say what they’re genetically predisposed to in terms of injury because there are too many genes that are intrinsically involved and there are too many other factors to be considered too. So whatever packages do become available in the future will have to be dynamic and change as the science changes and we learn more.

“Our genes don’t change, just our understanding of them and how they work or contribute to a particular trait as our knowledge improves,” he says.

The impact of this ‘genetic knowledge’

But what impact will this have on professional athletes? As the science behind the genetic influence on sports performance and injury matures, the prospect of personalised medicine is one which has most scientists very excited.

“In theory if you could look at one individuals genetic make-up and see if they’re predisposed to certain injuries one could then provide the optimal treatment for that particular person,” says Collins.

In the case of elite athletes especially, this form of personalised medicine could not come soon enough as they want to recover fast and get back out there in as short a time as possible.

The application of personalised medicine would not only mean faster treatments however, it could also open the door to personalised training programmes which could be altered to reduce exposure to risk factors to reduce the risk of any injuries that athlete is predisposed to.

“In other words, the diagnosis and treatment of patients in the future could be determined not only by traditional examinations and specialised investigations, but also with the aid of the patient’s genetic profile,” he wrote in his paper.

Source:Malcolm Collins, PhD, Associate Professor and Chief Specialist Scientist, MRC/UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM).

(Amy Froneman, Health24, September 2011)


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Sports Injuries Expert

Adrian Rotunno is a medical doctor in the Sports & Exercise Medicine fellowship at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa, and qualified physiotherapist. Team physician for Dimension Data pro-cycling, and Boland Rugby. Special interests include endurance sport, in particular cycling, as well as contact sports.

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