Understanding arthritis in athletes is important when diagnosing and treating orthopedic injuries. Arthritis or osteoarthritis something we specialize in at the Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Institute of Fort Worth. Athletes tend to be very healthy on many levels, but along with the benefits of an active lifestyle come certain risks, and arthritis is one of them. You don’t need to be an athlete to develop arthritis, and not all active people will have the condition; but if you push your body in sports, you may be putting strain on your joints in a way that can raise your risk. At OSMI, we can help you with orthopedic diagnosis and treatment of sports injuries.
What Is Arthritis in Atheltes?
When we talk about arthritis, we generally mean the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis. It’s a condition that involves the wearing away of cartilage that protects our bones where they meet our joints; it causes pain, swelling, and stiffness. Osteoarthritis is different from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease in which the synovial membrane that protects and lubricates joints becomes inflamed, causing pain and swelling.
Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when cartilage, which normally functions as a cushion at the ends of the joints, breaks down and is no longer properly reducing friction in the joint. Over time, cartilage can wear away to the extent that bone rubs against bone. When the joint moves without enough cartilage as a cushion, it can itself become damaged.
Common symptoms of Osteoarthritis are:
- Joint pain: Often after overuse (such as high impact exercise) or with inactivity
- Joint stiffness after inactivity: Usually eases up once movement begins, and commonly occurs in the morning
The stiffness and pain associated with osteoarthritis can keep an athlete from being active, and inactivity can contribute to the condition worsening, thus creating a cycle in which the osteoarthritis is continually bothersome.
How Can Sports Contribute to Arthritis in Athletes?
We know that any athletic activity comes with some risk of getting hurt, even with safety precautions. Both injuries caused by an accident, such as a fall or collision, and injuries caused by overuse and repeated stress can increase our risk of developing arthritis. Examples of sports-related injuries include torn cartilage or ligaments and broken bones.
Though arthritis is more common in older people, sports injuries can raise your risk of what’s known as early onset arthritis. This means arthritis that develops at a younger age than what doctors consider normal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 8 million people ages 18-44 report being diagnosed with arthritis. Participating in competitive sports can increase your risk of injuries that can accelerate cartilage degeneration. In fact, CDC research shows that those patients who suffer from severe joint injuries, such as a meniscus tear or rotator cuff injury, have a 6 times greater likelihood of developing osteoarthritis.
Common sports injuries that can be contributors to osteoarthritis include:
- Ligament injuries (such as ACL injuries -Anterior Cruciate Ligament): Cartilage damage can occur when a ligament is injured or torn. This damage can result in early arthritis.
- Orthopedic Joint Dislocations: Cartilage can be damaged any time a joint is dislocated.
- Fractures: When a bone is fractured near the joint, the cartilage can heal unevenly, causing accelerated wear on the cartilage and possible early arthritis.
- Direct injury to the cartilage: A sharp or forceful blow directly at the joint can cause cartilage injury.
Managing Arthritis in Athletes
Maintaining fitness is key to managing arthritis in its early stages. Athletes should continue muscle strengthening exercises, as well as manage their weight to minimize joint stress and pain.
Low impact exercises to improve movement in the affected joint include:
Other pain management techniques for arthritis can include:
- Use over-the-counter pain relievers to reduce inflammation and discomfort.
- Apply heat (warm compresses) to improve circulation and provide soothing relief.
- Apply cold packs to reduce inflammation.
- Avoid lengthy periods of inactivity, as this can cause stiffness in the joint.
- Do not overuse the damaged joint. If it hurts, take a rest.
- Utilize physical therapy to improve joint function.
How Can I Reduce My Risk of Arthritis?
If you get hurt playing sports, your first step in preventing arthritis is to make sure your injury is completely healed before you return to activity. Active people tend to have a hard time being sidelined; but for long-term health, it’s very important to listen to your sports medicine doctor and physical therapist and only return to action when he or she says you’re ready.
You’ll also want to make sure you and your providers have considered any muscular, gait, or other imbalances that may have contributed to your injury. An OSMI physical therapist can assist with the right adjustments, strengthening and stabilization to help change your movement patterns so that you avoid another injury and long-term wear-and-tear.