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Can Genetics Predict Injury Risk?

June 17, 2021

If you knew you could run a half-marathon without blowing out your knee, would you be more likely to try it? If you’re invited to a pickup hockey game and know what ligaments and muscles to stretch before hitting the rink, would you spend more time enjoying the exercise? 

Millions of dollars ride on a professional athlete’s performance and time on the field or court, so it’s no surprise that gene profiling might be used to keep elite athletes at their peak. But can this same genetic information be used off the field as well? 

How Genetic Testing Works 

Genetics is the study of our DNA and the traits we inherit from our family bloodline. Although basic genetic study began in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 20th century that a clearer picture of heredity and genetic makeup came into focus. 

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, coupled with exponential progress in technology, researchers continue to deliver knowledge about how our genes affect our lives.  

Genetic testing is what allows us to identify chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome, potential breast cancer risks and even your ancestral bloodline with popular at-home genetic testing kits. 

Can Genes Predict Injury? 

Sports medicine has long been a target for new research on genetics and what makes a superb athlete. Studies have identified gene variants associated with an athlete’s potential level of endurance (ACE I/I) and power-related performance (ACTN3 R/R) to understand why some people make amazing athletes and others are better off cheering them on in the bleachers. 

Another area of sports medicine of interest to geneticists is injury and rehabilitation. The time a player spends on the bench is costly for professional sports teams, so researchers are looking to genetics to potentially save millions of dollars by optimizing an athlete’s playing time. 

One recent study looked into genotypes associated with ankle and knee injuries in professional and amateur soccer players, focusing on four genes thought to play a role in muscle pain, fatigue and damage: 

●      GDF5 - A growth factor involved in bone and cartilage formation.

●      AMPD1 - Produces an energy-producing enzyme found in the muscles used for movement.

●      COL5A1 - A protein coding gene for type V collagen that strengthens and supports many tissues in the body, including skin, ligaments, bones, tendons and muscles.

●      IGF2 - Gene responsible for an insulin-like factor promoting growth and repair of cells in many different tissues. 

While the presence of these specific genes did not conclusively predetermine athletic success or failure, they opened the door to discovering how individualized training and rehabilitation techniques might be developed to prevent injury or recover more quickly from it. 

Potential Applications for Everyone 

Outside of genetics, environmental and psychological factors such as family support, economic levels, peer groups and coaching techniques also affect a professional athlete’s performance. But these biological clues can offer new insight into training protocols and recovery procedures for non-athletes, too. 

With this knowledge and more widespread availability of genetic testing for these traits in the future, trainers and exercise enthusiasts can develop highly individualized training and recovery programs. 

With additional advancements in genetic testing and technology, these kinds of applications aren’t too far on the horizon.


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