Osteoarthritis – the condition that causes joints to stiffen and cause pain – has long been seen as an inevitable consequence of the ageing process, but it’s also a distinct hazard for athletes. We’re already seeing incidences of osteoarthritis in middle-aged and even young adults with athletic backgrounds, as a consequence of the sports they play. But which are the worst knee damage sports that risk players developing knee osteoarthritis at a later date?
A recent study conducted by assorted universities in America looked into this question and the results are very interesting. A team of researchers from US universities carried out a review of six databases to analyse the link between different sports and osteoarthritis among nearly 3,800 athletes.
The results? Around 45 per cent of the athletes ended up with knee osteoarthritis – and the risk increased to 57 per cent among those who had suffered knee injuries, and rose to 61 per cent among former athletes who become obese. And when they dug deeper into the actual sports the athletes participated in, a pattern of sorts began to form.
Football, weightlifting, wrestling… and knee damage
The least surprising sport which cropped up in the study results was long-distance running but, according to the data, football, weightlifting and wrestling are the prime culprits – raising the chances of developing osteoarthritis in the knees by three to seven times when compared to low-risk sports, such as basketball, boxing and track and field events.
Why would one sport be more damaging to the knee joints than another? Well, the dangers of long-distance running are obvious: repetitive shock and stress on a targeted area over time. The shock and stress that can be brought on by weightlifting and wrestling target the same area, albeit with massive and concentrated amounts of pressure on the joints.
Football’s hazards are brought on by extended periods of running combined with instantly stopping (or twisting and turning) – not to mention the sharp impact of making a tackle, or receiving one. But why would basketball be seen as the safer sport, in that case? Well, it’s a matter of endurance – while the average NBA player covers a distance of 2.72 miles in an average game, his Premier League counterpart can cover anything up to 9.5 miles in a game.
…and don’t forget tennis
Although it wasn’t mentioned in the study, tennis is another sport where the threat of knee injuries hangs over its participants. Although the repetitive pounding of the turf (or clay, or asphalt, or concrete) isn’t as relentless as other sports, the stopping, starting and twisting is even more of a requirement. And such stress can cause torn cartilages, knee swelling, and general wear and tear.
Another factor unique to tennis is that it is one of the few athletic pursuits where the participants are unable to pace themselves to a set time or distance. Runners have a rough idea of how long they’ll be required to perform, footballers know how long they’ll be required to play, but the nature of tennis means that a game can last anything from an average of an hour and a half hours (in the case of women’s tennis) or two and a half hours (for men’s), to anything up to five hours – and the Wimbledon record is an incredible eleven hours and five minutes (held over three days, admittedly, but still…).
Whatever sport you play, preparation is essential. Preventative measures – such as an extensive warm-up regime, constant monitoring of the state of the joints, an approved exercise programme and a strong line of communication with training and medical staff – can help you avoid osteoarthritis issues throughout and beyond your sporting career.