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Elite sportspeople at higher risk of osteoarthritis, research shows

Experts questioned 3,357 retired Olympians aged around 45 on injuries and the health of their bones, joints, muscles and spine.

Katharine Hay
Wednesday 23 November 2022 11:31 GMT
The former Olympians were questioned about injuries (John Walton/PA)
The former Olympians were questioned about injuries (John Walton/PA) (PA Archive)

Competing at elite level in sport is linked with an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis and joint pain in later life, a study has shown.

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the UK, causing joints to become painful and stiff.

One in four retired Olympians who participated in a recent University of Edinburgh study reported a diagnosis of the condition.

The research, published on Wednesday, found retired sportspeople who had experienced a sports-related injury had a higher chance of knee and hip osteoarthritis when compared with the general population.

The athletes – who had competed at Olympic level in 57 sports including athletics, rowing and skiing – also had an increased risk of lower back pain overall, and shoulder osteoarthritis after a shoulder injury.

Researchers quizzed 3,357 retired Olympians aged around 45 on injuries and the health of their bones, joints, muscles and spine.

They were also asked if they were currently experiencing joint pain, and if they had an osteoarthritis diagnosis.

For comparison, 1,735 people aged around 41 from the general population completed the same survey.

Researchers then 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 considered factors that could influence the risk of pain and osteoarthritis such as injury, recurrent injury, age, sex and obesity.

They found the knee, lumbar spine and shoulder were the most injury prone areas for Olympians. These were also among the most common locations for osteoarthritis and pain.

After a joint injury, the Olympians were more likely to develop osteoarthritis than someone sustaining a similar injury in the general population, the research found.

The sportspeople also had an increased risk of shoulder, knee, hip and ankle and upper and lower spine pain after injury, although this did not differ with the general population.

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.”

Researchers say the findings may help people make decisions about recovery and rehabilitation from injuries in order to prevent recurrences, and to inform prevention strategies to reduce the risk and progression of pain and osteoarthritis in retirement.

The university said the study was the largest international survey of its kind, and the first to observe the consequences of osteoarthritis and pain in different joints from retired elite athletes across different summer and winter Olympic sports.

The results came from two linked studies which have been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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