For an elite athlete, a severe injury can be devastating. Not only can it keep them on the sidelines for some time, but it can also affect their ability to secure future contracts and sure up their livelihood. Unfortunately, even after the athlete recovers from the injury itself, there can be complications in the future, sometimes years down the line, relating to that initial injury. For example, sometimes an injury like a dislocated shoulder or a ruptured ACL weakens a specific of the body, making the athlete more susceptible to sustaining the same injury again.
Another concern is post-traumatic arthritis, which can develop in the joint of an athlete years after that joint suffers a physical injury. Post-traumatic arthritis can be incredibly painful and difficult to recover from, leaving athletes performing below their peak ability or unable to compete at all. This condition is particularly common following a knee injury, with many athletes turning to physical therapy or arthritis in knees pain relief in an attempt to alleviate the pain of arthritis and get back to normal. So, what is post-traumatic arthritis, and how is it caused by a sports injury?
There are many different types of arthritis, but they all have one thing in common – debilitating joint pain. The two most common types are rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease resulting in the body attacking the fluid surrounding joints, and osteoarthritis, which is a result of normal wear and tear on our joints over time. When osteoarthritis occurs, the cartilage that protects the ends of our bones wears down, leaving two bones exposed and rubbing against each other. This is what causes the joint pain and inflammation that is so characteristic of arthritis.
In some cases, the cause of osteoarthritis is unknown. It is more prevalent during middle age, affects females more than males, and those who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk than others. Another significant risk factor for developing osteoarthritis is sustaining a sports injury earlier in life. This can lead to post-traumatic arthritis, which is thought to affect around 5.6 million people in the United States.
The link between injuries and osteoarthritis
While a sporting injury is one cause of post-traumatic arthritis, this condition may be caused by other types of physical trauma such as a car accident or a fall. During the initial injury, damage can be sustained to the cartilage or bone. This can change the mechanics of the joint forever, even after the initial injury heals. It can also result in the release of inflammatory markers, which can cause damage to the cartilage associated with the joint. These changes result in accelerated wearing of the joint, leading to arthritis.
Common types of injuries that can lead to post-traumatic arthritis include:
- Torn meniscus: One of the most common knee injuries, occurring when damage is sustained to either of the two C-shaped sections of cartilage (the menisci) that are located between the shinbone and the thighbone.
- Knee fracture: Caused by a break or crack in one or more of the bones in the knee joint
- Knee dislocation: Occurs when the bones of the lower leg (the tibia and fibula) are moved in relation to the major bone in the thigh, the femur
- Ligament injury: A ligament injury to the knee, such as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) can be extremely debilitating and take a long time to recover from. Ligaments are responsible for stabilizing the knee in relation to the bones around it
Why are athletes more at risk of post-traumatic arthritis?
Each of the injuries described above can happen to anyone, so why are athletes most at risk of developing post-traumatic arthritis? Well, it’s due in part because they’re so active, constantly putting their bodies at risk of injury. Athletes by nature sustain more injuries, making them in turn more likely to develop post-traumatic arthritis.
In addition, athletes may also not recover from their initial injury as effectively as a non-athlete would. If someone who isn’t a professional athlete tears their ACL, they are under no pressure to make a speedy recovery. For an athlete who has a career based on being active, they aren’t afforded the same luxury. However, in an effort to return to action too quickly, they can cause more damage to the injured area and could increase their risk of developing post-traumatic arthritis in the future.
Carrying extra weight puts a lot of strain on your joints, which is why obesity is a risk factor for arthritis. Although most athletes are certainly not overweight, there’s no denying that the joints of professional football and basketball players are under a lot of stress from carrying those impressive muscles around all day. This added strain causes the joints to wear more quickly, which again increases an athlete’s risk of developing post-traumatic arthritis.
Don’t be alarmed – the thought of developing post-traumatic arthritis should not scare anybody away from pursuing an active lifestyle. The risk of developing this condition is small, and a healthy and active lifestyle is so important when it comes to preserving other aspects of your wellbeing.