A study suggests that competing at an elite level in sports is linked to a future osteoarthritis diagnosis and joint pain.
One in four retired Olympians reported osteoarthritis diagnosis, the form of arthritis that causes changes in the joint and can lead to discomfort, pain and disability, the research found. Elite retired sportspeople who had experienced a sports-related injury had a higher chance of knee and hip osteoarthritis when compared with the general population.
Osteoarthritis causes joints to become painful and stiff. Other causes of this condition are a previous joint injury, age, family history, obesity, and being a woman. Receiving an osteoarthritis diagnosis is usually based on symptoms and an examination of the joints.
The largest international survey into Olympians and osteoarthritis diagnosis
The study, conducted by the University of Edinburgh, is the largest international survey of its kind and is the first to analyse the consequences of osteoarthritis and pain in different joints from retired elite athletes across different summer and winter Olympic sports.
The researchers surveyed 3,357 retired Olympians aged around 45 on their injuries and health of their bones, joints, muscles and spine. The included participants had competed at an Olympic level in 57 sports, including athletics, rowing and skiing. They were asked if they were currently experiencing joint pain and if they had an osteoarthritis diagnosis.
To compare the results, 1,735 people aged 41 from the general population completed the survey.
Knee, lumbar spine and shoulder are the most injury-prone areas in Olympians
The researchers used statistical models to compare the prevalence of spine, upper limb and lower limb osteoarthritis and pain in retired Olympians with the general population. The team also factored in the risk of pain and osteoarthritis diagnosis likelihood such as injury, recurrent injury, age, sex and obesity.
They found that the knee, lumbar spine and shoulder were the most injury-prone areas for Olympians. They were also amongst the most common areas for osteoarthritis and pain.
After a joint injury, the Olympians were more likely to receive an osteoarthritis diagnosis than someone sustaining a similar injury from the general public. The Olympians also had an increased risk of shoulder, knee, hip and ankle and upper and lower spine pain following an injury, this did not differ compared to the general population.
Dr Debbie Palmer, of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport, said: “High-performance sport is associated with an increased risk of sport-related injury and there is emerging evidence suggesting retired elite athletes have high rates of post-traumatic osteoarthritis.
“This study provides new evidence for specific factors associated with pain and osteoarthritis in retired elite athletes across the knee, hip, ankle, lumbar and cervical spine, and shoulder, and identifies differences in their occurrence that are specific to Olympians.”
The researchers hope the study will help people make decisions about recovery and rehabilitation from injuries to reduce the risk of reoccurrences and a future with an osteoarthritis diagnosis.