Most Sports Don't Raise Risk of Knee Osteoarthritis

But Study Shows Soccer Puts Nonprofessional Athletes at Increased Risk of Knee OA

By Charlene Laino
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 7, 2011 (Chicago) -- While most sports don't seem to raise the risk of knee arthritis, some sports do seem to be particularly hard on the knees.

Overall, athletes don't have a greater risk for knee osteoarthritis, says researcher Jeffrey Driban, PhD, assistant professor of rheumatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

That's true regardless of whether you participate in recreational or elite-level sports, he tells WebMD.

But both elite and non-elite soccer players were at increased risk of knee osteoarthritis (OA), a new study showed.

So too were competitive long-distance runners, weight lifters, and wrestlers.

There weren't enough data to draw conclusions about nonprofessionals who engage in these sports. In addition, the risk to women is unclear as most research has been on male elite athletes, Driban says.

The researchers found no increased risk of OA with basketball, boxing, cross-country skiing, ice hockey, orienteering, shooting, throwing, and track and field.

The study was presented here at the American College of Rheumatology's annual meeting.

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis, or OA, is characterized by progressive damage to the joint cartilage, the cushioning material at the end of bones.

Nearly 6.5 million Americans between the ages of 35 and 84 will be diagnosed with knee osteoarthritis in the next decade, according to another study presented at the meeting.

Interestingly, other recent studies have not found an increased risk of osteoarthritis in long-distance runners.

Still some experts urge caution. To reduce the risk of OA, consider non-contact, low-impact sports such as doubles tennis, swimming, and cycling, suggests Scott Zashin, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.

If you like to jog, try to run on a soft surface to limit trauma to the knees, he says.

If you're going to participate in high-risk sports like soccer, or if you already have knee injuries, be sure to maintain a healthy weight, Driban says. Other than aging, obesity is the biggest risk factor for osteoarthritis.

Who's at Risk of OA?

The reviewed studies compared knee osteoarthritis rates among sport participants after they retired to those of people of similar age who didn't participate in those sports.

Among the findings:

  • Elite and recreational soccer players had a fourfold increased risk of knee OA.
  • Elite long-distance runners had a threefold increased risk of knee OA.
  • Elite-level competitive weight lifting was associated with a sixfold increased risk of knee OA.
  • Elite wrestling was associated with a fourfold increased risk of knee OA.

These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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SOURCES: American College of Rheumatology's 75th Annual Scientific Meeting, Chicago, November 2011.Jeffrey Driban, PhD, assistant professor of rheumatology, Tufts Medical Center, Boston.Scott Zashin, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Dallas.©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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