Metatarsals, the modern footballer’s curse

Why football players are frequently breaking metatarsals

Wayne Rooney, Stephen Gerrard and David Beckham, three footballers that have something in common other than that they are English legends: they have all been affected by the breaking of a metatarsal bone.

The mass hysteria that surrounds the metatarsal is a pretty new phenomenon. Before 2002 a metatarsal injury was pretty much unheard of compared to these days when it is nearly as common as a pulled hamstring.

The metatarsals are the five long bones in the fore foot which connect the ankle bones to those in the toes, and provide support when running. They usually break through a twist or a direct blow. The first, second and fifth metatarsals are the mostly likely to break, with an estimated third of body weight impacted on the first metatarsal. The third and fourth metatarsals are likely to break through an ongoing process (stress fracture) rather than a one-off incident.

Boots to blame?

But how did it all start? Professor Chris Moran, an independent researcher on metatarsals, believes that modern day football boots are partly to blame. He said: 'Compared to 30 years ago footballers are now athletes, and are training like athletes. Therefore they are more susceptible to the type of injuries that athletes get.

'There's no question that we're seeing more metatarsal injuries and that could be because boots are more flimsy. It can't be because players are tackling harder than when the likes of Billy Bremner or Ron Harris did when they were playing.'

Healing and prevention of metatarsal injuries

Metatarsal injuries vary in time to heal. Younger athletes are more likely to repair quicker. The most important thing is not to make a comeback until the bone is fully repaired. In 2005 Michael Owen was expected to be back in eight weeks, but it took 17 weeks until he could fully take part for Newcastle again. Rooney recently broke his fourth and fifth metatarsal, and took 14 weeks to make his comeback in 2004 when he first broke the fifth bone. It is almost impossible to put a return date on a broken metatarsal.

John Fearn, head physio at Reading FC, believes that players rushing back will cause more harm than good. He said: 'It’s a massive risk for a player to rush back from a break. In the long run it will cause a player far more damage, as the bone would not have healed properly.

'When a player has been given the all-clear by a doctor to begin training they should start thinking about different techniques to avoid a repeat of the injury, varying from extra padding to a different running style. To help speed-up recovery players can use ice packs, strapping or oxygen tents, but they key is not to over do it.'

Fearn concluded: 'It sounds simple, but jumping up and down on a concrete surface will really help once the bone is repaired, as research shows the bone will become stronger. Players must look at what boots they are buying and must avoid following fashion trends. You need to combine comfort with what is right for the playing surface.'

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