Not all sports are equal when it comes to preserving your knees.
A new study suggests that elite-level (professional, Olympic or national level), long distance running, weight-lifting and wrestling, as well as elite and non-elite (recreational or school-level) soccer are linked with an increased risk of knee osteoarthritis. On the other hand, the researchers didn't find a link between many other sports and knee osteoarthritis.
"These are also sports that are associated with a high risk of injury and/or high intensive loading on the joints, like weight lifting," study researcher Jeffrey Driban, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the division of rheumatology at Tufts University, told HuffPost. Driban's research was presented this month at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Scientific Meeting in Chicago.
However, Driban said it's important to note that many of the sports linked with osteoarthritis in the study were played by elite-level athletes (except for soccer), meaning that the average person shouldn't overly worry about developing the condition by playing their favorite sport.
Osteoarthritis is a condition that involves the breakdown of cartilage at the ends of the joints, according to the Mayo Clinic. The risk of osteoarthritis is raised by injury to the knees, joint stress, a family history of the disease, a sedentary lifestyle, excess weight and obesity and old age.
Driban and his colleagues reviewed data from past research that included 3,192 people, and found that 8.4 percent of people who had played sports had knee osteoarthritis, compared with 9.1 percent of non-athletes. They then further analyzed the data to find that elite basketball, cross-country skiing, shooting and marksmanship, ice hockey, boxing and track and field were not linked with the increased osteoarthritis risk.
In addition, it's important to note that the study was only of men, so the findings may be different when it comes to women, Driban said.
"One of the things we need to keep in mind with the differences in gender, is women tend to have a higher risk of knee injuries like ACL tears," Driban said. "That joint trauma might increase risk of osteoarthritis. Women might be at a greater risk [of knee osteoarthritis] because they're at greater risk for injury."
Even though the research shows that most sports are safe for the knees, especially when played at a non-elite level, it's still important to be smart about protecting your knees. Driban offers up these tips:
Because sports injuries are a risk factor for developing knee osteoarthritis, Driban recommends learning how to minimize your risk of injury in your sport by looking into injury prevention programs. Even in the study, non-elite athletes that did not have an injury didn't have a high risk of knee osteoarthritis, while the group with the highest risk was the elite athletes who had injuries. "There's a lot of interesting research being done in sport medicine looking at neuromuscular training ... where the goal is to teach the person how to land properly and other ways of better controlling their joints," Driban said.
If you're already injured, make sure you take time to properly rehabilitate, Driban said. "Give it a chance to heal instead of pushing yourself through the pain and aggravating the joint further," he added. In addition to avoiding strenuous exercise, the Cleveland Clinic advises putting ice packs and or heating pads on the injury to ease the pain, as well as using a brace or cane to keep stress off the joint.
If you're a retiring professional or college athlete and are winding down from playing your sport, be aware if your sport puts you at high risk of knee osteoarthritis, Driban said. "It's important for them to recognize, especially if they're in high-risk sports, that they may be at elevated risk," he said, "and should therefore do things to reduce the risk like maintaining a healthy lifestyle, keeping a healthy body weight and keeping physically active."
If you're someone who is particularly concerned about your joints, Driban suggests just picking a sport that has a lower risk of injury. "Pick a no-contact sport, or one with low loading, like doubles tennis or swimming," he said.
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