Elite athletes at greater risk for arthritis: Study

PHOTO: Elite athletes at greater risk for arthritis: Study

NEW YORK - Elite male athletes who participate in high-contact sports such as football, soccer and rugby have a higher risk of developing knee and hip osteoarthritis than men who exercise little or not at all, a Swedish study found.

There was a doubled risk in soccer and handball players, and a tripled risk in ice hockey players, added the researchers, whose study was published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Osteoarthritis, also called "wear and tear" arthritis, occurs when the cartilage cushioning the joints wears down. That allows bones to rub together, which can cause pain, swelling and limited range of motion.

"Hip and knee osteoarthritis ... are more commonly found in former male elite athletes than expected," wrote co-author Magnus Tveit at Lund University in Sweden.

"A previous knee injury is associated with knee osteoarthritis in former impact athletes but not in nonimpact athletes."

The study included more than 700 retired Swedish athletes aged 50 to 93 who had played professional and Olympic level sports, and nearly 1,400 men of the same age who exercised a little or not at all.

The group of retired athletes included men involved in high-contact sports such as soccer and hockey, and those who participated in non-contact sports like running, swimming and cycling.

The risk of having hip or knee arthritis was 85 percent higher in elite athletes. In athletes who had had joint surgery, the risk more than doubled.

The risk for those who got little to no exercise was 19 percent.

"Regular exercise is important to health and well being, but certain kinds of exercise expose you to greater risk of injury," said Joseph Buckwalter, who studies osteoarthritis and sports medicine at the University of Iowa and was not involved in the study.

"Elite athletes engage in challenging, physically demanding sports, so they're at higher risk of joint injuries and repetitive joint injuries."

Though the study found little impact on younger or weekend athletes, there are a few lessons for some, added Tveit.

"If you're an overweight, middle-aged runner who wants to run at an intense level, there are better ways of staying in shape without risking a knee injury," he wrote in an email.

Experts agreed that physical activity regardless of the type of sport had health benefits that outweigh the risk of arthritis, and recommended sports with less risk of injury such as swimming, cycling, moderate running and yoga.