Arthritis and the athlete: Certain types of sports increase the risk

Suffering the occasional pain of osteoarthritis seems to come with the adding of years to the body. It is an accepted part of aging. But, for the older athlete who still wishes to continue with his or her preferred fitness program, it can be quite a challenge.

Arthritis is essentially the breaking down of the articular cartilage covering the bone ends. Usually cartilage in the joint enables the smooth, gliding motion between those joints. But with the onset of arthritis, certain chemical and cellular changes occur within the cartilage that soften and eventually break down the normal tissue. At that point, the defects begin, and the bone thickens, often developing spurs below the joint surface and around the joint.

What this means to the athlete is pain, swelling and a grating sound or feeling within the joint. And it often means a restriction of motion, resulting in adverse performance during competition. Certain types of sports increase the risk and add to the possibility of osteoarthritis in specific joint areas that are used most often in the sport.

Soccer players, ballet and toe dancers and football players all risk osteoarthritis changes in ankle and knee joints as they age. The weight-bearing usage of the big toe in toe dances is especially susceptible to changes, as are the elbow and shoulder of baseball pitchers. Any joint that is used consistently for and over long periods of time will risk wear and pain with age.

Trauma from an injury increases the chances for this debilitating disease. Uneven distribution of weight because of overcompensation on joints or joints that have been injured will accentuate the stress placed on that area as well as on the opposite site. Biomechanical imbalances that you were born with add to your chances of cartilage breakdown.

Sports with sudden loading and sudden contact seem to have the highest arthritis problems; running with a smooth, continuous gait seems to have the least. The shock mechanism we have within our bodies reacts too slowly to compensate for sudden contact movements, whereas the slow build-up of running motions allow the body to compensate for shock.

For the athlete, preventing osteoarthritis requires knowledge of and careful preparation for the sport and prevention of injury. Examine your musculoskeletal system for imperfections before taking on a sport. Seek immediate treatment for injuries, and slowly reduce your workout time as you age. Being a smart athlete can help you reduce and possibly prevent arthritis problems.

n Jerry Vance is owner of The Sweat Shop/Wet Sweat. She offers classes through Carson City Recreation and Aquatics Center and is a fitness instructor for the Senior Center.


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