Winter 2018

Know Your Knees

Certain athletes should take extra care to avoid osteoarthritis in their largest joints.

By Monica Jimenez

Do you play soccer, or regularly push your limits while weight lifting or long-distance running? You could be at higher risk for developing knee osteoarthritis, according to a research review led by School of Medicine research associate professor Jeffrey Driban. For the Journal of Athletic Training report, Driban and his team analyzed data from 34 articles and studies seeking links between participation in sports and knee osteoarthritis, which affects 30.8 million adults nationwide. “There’s been some back and forth with some people thinking physical activity is bad for joints because of repetitive overloading, and others saying it’s good because it helps maintain healthy body weight, strength, and endurance,” Driban said. “We wanted to get a more nuanced picture of what was happening to better advise people on which activities are safe.”

After looking at participants in a wide variety of sports, the researchers determined that playing sports doesn’t make a person more likely to develop knee osteoarthritis in general. But broken down by sport and level of competition, it was a different story. The data showed that elite- and nonelite-level soccer players, as well as runners, weight lifters, and wrestlers who compete at a professional or international level, developed the condition at rates three to seven times higher than people who don’t play sports. Those numbers aren’t cause for serious alarm—only one in 10 former athletes in the studies got knee osteoarthritis—but they do warrant further research, which should include more female and nonelite competitive athletes. Future studies should also include data about when and how long each sport was played, Driban said.

“The overall message to the public is that yes, some athletes are at risk,” he added. “But most are not, and if exercise guidelines are followed, sports are a safe, fun way to encourage people to be active.”

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