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Myth Busters: Do Sports Cause Arthritis?

Many of us have participated in sports throughout our lifespan, playing in high school and college sports, or recreational running/biking. And as we age many have developed knee or hip arthritis and blame the cause on playing those same sports. But can we put the cause only on our previous exercise? If intense activity causes arthritis should we keep doing it, especially as we age?

First off, when referring to arthritis, there are different types. The most common types are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. This article is focusing on the most common by far, osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear of the joint, including wearing or loss of cartilage. Cartilage acts as a cushion that allows smooth movement in the joint, when cartilage wears away movement in the joint can be painful. So if arthritis is wear and tear, then the more you run or play basketball/football, the more arthritis you could develop right? The reasoning seems sound, however arthritis is more complex than that and other factors contribute to the problem. A main cause of wear tear isn’t activity. In fact a study for knee arthritis found that in healthy adults, increased activity actually improved joint health. Read below for the other factors that have shown to contribute to developing osteoarthritis.   

  1. Sport Injuries: One exception to the link between sport and arthritis is if you sustained multiple or chronic injuries to a joint. Overtime the inflammation or instability caused from the injury can wear away at the cartilage. Types of injuries include ligament injuries such as tearing or rupturing the ACL ligament, fractures, and repeated joint dislocations.
  2. Older Age: Arthritis can strike at any age. As we age our cartilage becomes brittle over time and our body’s ability to repair the cartilage becomes sluggish, leading to increased arthritis
  3. Infection: Certain infections can wear away at a joint. This includes multiple episodes of gout and recurrent staph infections in the joint.
  4. Obesity: Those who are overweight/obese increase the risk of arthritis because of added stress to the joint due to the added weight. This is especially true with hip and knee arthritis.
  5. Smoking: This can exacerbate arthritis symptoms by slowing down the healing process and increasing the amount of inflammation in the body.

Arthritis is complex and one cannot put the sole blame on any culprit, but on a combination of the above listed. Also having arthritis, does not necessarily mean you have pain. Many patients have severe arthritis as per an X-ray, however they report little to no pain. Also on the flip side for those with painful arthritis, that pain can be treated. Arthritic pain can be managed successfully by with a physician and physical therapist. And as stated above, moderate activity such as walking or swimming can improve joint health. Look at previous blog posts that address what you can do to manage your arthritis.


Racunica TL et al. “Effect of physical activity on articular knee joint structures in community-based adults. Arthritis Rheum. (2007). 57(7): 1261-8.


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