Top athletes and early onset arthritis
Bones and Joints Why top athletes are more likely to develop early osteoarthritis, and the lessons we can learn from them about how to avoid the same fate.
It's tempting to think that osteoarthritis only affects people who are old and unfit – but that is not true.
“Everyone develops osteoarthritis eventually, as joints degenerate, but top athletes usually develop it far earlier than the rest of us,” says Mark Browes, sports physiotherapist and ex Liverpool first team physiotherapist.
The reason, he says, is that constant practice and play puts a greater load on joints such as the knee and hip than occurs in everyday life.
Michael Owen, ex-Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester United and England star says: "I played nearly 500 competitive games in my career and towards the end began to feel the effects. I had five operations and at 37 I'm aware of increasing joint pain and stiffness."
Players of sports that involve regularly pivoting at the knee, such as football, cricket and rugby, are prone to injuries such as tearing the meniscal cartilage, which absorbs knee shock. Significant injuries and surgery dramatically increase the likelihood of developing early osteoarthritis.
Ben Kay, the ex-Leicester Tigers, England and British Lions second row, says: "I had a couple of knee operations at the beginning of my career, and then a patella injury, ankle and back injuries. Like most of my playing colleagues I am now feeling significant pain and stiffness associated with chronic joint degeneration, a result of a career in high-level sport."
Browes says: “You cannot remove the risk of trauma in sport, but you could restrict the number of games an individual plays per season– though players are under pressure from clubs, fans and (not least) themselves, to perform at a high level, and many simply accept these risks.”
Many clubs now carry out MRI scans regularly to check the condition of joints. “There is also a trend towards using collagen supplements to increase the depth of the articular cartilage, the tissue that helps joints to operate smoothly,” says Browes.
"The key is to choose exercise that is appropriate to your age and physical condition."
Simply giving up exercise will not protect your joints. “Exercises that build up muscle tissue help the muscles protect the joints, and physical activity encourages circulation of synovial fluid which helps them operate smoothly,” says Browes.
Browes advises: “As a rule of thumb, if pain stops you exercising, you end up limping, or the resultant pain means you cannot do the same exercise for the next few days, it is not appropriate. Don't stop exercising altogether, but get advice about changing to different form of exercise.”