Footballers have higher risk of developing sleep disorders, study shows

Hospital Clínic research suggests repeated blows to the head could explain greater exposure to condition

Researchers from Hospital Clínic and the IDIBAPS medical research institute
Researchers from Hospital Clínic and the IDIBAPS medical research institute / Queralt Ribé
Catalan News

Catalan News | @catalannews | Barcelona

March 28, 2023 04:00 PM

A new study has shown that footballers have a higher risk of developing sleep disorders. 

Scientists at Hospital Clínic and IDIBAPS medical research institute have found that repeated blows to the head could be a key factor in explaining why such athletes are particularly prone to developing such disorders, but the research also suggests that the reasons could be varied. 

The relationship also has to do with the later development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's or dementia, since REM sleep disorders are precursors of these diseases. 

The study, published in the 'Journal of Neurology', analyzes patients with sleep disorders treated at Hospital Clínic between March 1994 and March 2022. Of the 228 Spanish men diagnosed in this period, six of them (2.63%) had been professional footballers – far higher than the number of patients diagnosed with the disorder from the general population; 0.062%. 

In a press conference, Dr. Álex Iranzo, a neurologist at Hospital Clínic and head of the IDIBAPS research group, pointed out that REM phase sleep disorder is "statistically" associated with having been a professional soccer player earlier in life, as there is a bias towards a control group and the majority of the population. 

The six men who had been diagnosed at Hospital Clínic with REM sleep disorder had professional careers spanning an average of 13 years, and 40 years passed between their retirement and their diagnoses. 

Patients with REM sleep disorder are usually men in their 60s or 70s who have nightmares in their sleep, such as being chased or attacked, and may act out these nightmares by screaming or becoming aggressive in their sleep.

Dr. Iranzo believes that similar studies should now be replicated in other hospitals and countries to draw stronger conclusions. 

While repeated blows to the head is one aspect that professional footballers endure more than the general population, the researchers also suggested the development of the condition could also be influenced by age, diet, or pesticides used on fields.

Dr. Gil Rodas, sports medicine doctor at Hospital Clínic, said that the most important thing is to act "correctly" when a player suffers a concussion. "If a doctor considers the player not well, what they have to do is withdraw the player," Rodas added. 

He also mentioned that players should wait a number of days after suffering a concussion before they can be allowed to play again. "Today major institutions are creating protocols to establish that a player who has suffered a concussion in a match, in a training session, in any sport, will need at least six days to be ready to return to play," he explained.