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Did you know DNA affects your risk of soft tissue injury?

Staying off the bench: Soft tissue injuries and the genes behind them

Every year close to a half million athletes participate in college sports, all of them hoping to be the next Michael Jordan, Tom Brady or Sidney Crosby. But in reality, not many college-athletes go on to become professionals, about 1% end up playing in the NBA, 2% in the NFL and close to 5% in the NHL. As if these odds weren’t daunting enough, a single injury can send years of hard work down the drain and shatter the dreams of an athlete in an instant. With so much at stake, choosing professional stardom certainly seems unwise, unless, you could know your risk of injury and find ways to remedy them ahead of time. A growing body of research suggests that genetics can give us the solution: our genetic makeup has a lot to do with our predisposition to injuries, for instance, inheriting the ‘right’ version of one gene, COL1A1, can make some of us more resilient than others against sports related injuries to soft tissues like muscles and tendons.

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Sports injuries are anything but discriminatory, they can happen anytime, anywhere and to anyone. Whether you are a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, when it comes down to it, you are better off if something is broken rather than torn. Broken bones heal fast and you can be back to being active in no time, but mending a torn Achilles tendon or a pulled hamstring takes a long time. Also, after an injury to a muscle, tendon or ligament, all of which belong to the category of a soft tissue injury, an athlete is never the same. His or her performance is affected and the likelihood of re-injury skyrockets, and many of these after-effects have to do with the way soft tissue injuries are healed.

All soft tissues, which include tendons that connect muscle to bone, and ligaments that make up the contacts between bones, are made of an organized network of fibres. Muscles are mostly fibres containing two proteins called actin and myosin with a little peppering of another protein called collagen, whereas tendons and ligaments are composed mostly of collagen. Collagen is what gives us the elasticity we need for activities like running and jumping. When a muscle or a tendon is torn, the body makes new tissue to fix it, but this new tissue (scar tissue), doesn’t follow the same neat pattern of the existing tissue. Instead they are placed in a more random manner to help promote healing. However, because of this random arrangement, scar tissue just doesn’t have the same strength or the resilience of the original tissue. Think of an elastic band that was broken and repaired, it’s just not as versatile as the original band. Joints and muscles with scar tissue not only lose their range of motion but they are also more prone to tearing and re-injury.

Collagen, which gives tendons and ligaments their structure, is the most abundant protein in our body and is paramount for proper movement. The COL1A1 gene gives instructions to make one component of type I collagen. One version of this gene called rs1800012 is linked to soft tissue injuries. Those of us with the altered version of the COL1A1 gene make more type I collagen, and as a result may have stronger tendons and ligaments. People who inherit just altered version of COL1A1 experience significantly decreased risk of soft tissue injuries like anterior cruciate ligament ruptures and shoulder dislocations. According to one study, risk for ligament ruptures and shoulder dislocations were reduced by as much as 85%, which bodes well for an athlete. If you are a college hopeful, having rs1800012 can’t guarantee you will be injury free, but it does set you apart by offering a selective advantage over thousands of others who covet the same end goal – being a professional athlete and perhaps also rich and famous.

The career of an athlete, professional or amateur, demands regular training and competitions, which makes sports injuries almost a fact of life. Treating these injuries can be quite costly – $160 billion a year in the US and on top of that, top dollars are doled out to professional athletes on the mend. Genetic testing maybe the answer to reducing sports injuries because when the risk for injury is known, an athlete can take measures to prevent them.

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