NOV 27, 2022 6:13 PM PST

Elite-Level Athletes Diagnosed with Arthritis at Alarming Rates

WRITTEN BY: Zoe Michaud

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that occurs when the cartilage within a joint begins to break down. This degeneration leads to symptoms of pain, swelling, and stiffness. Osteoarthritis can be caused by overuse or injury of the joints. 

Though osteoarthritis most commonly affects the elderly, young athletes can be susceptible as well. This increased risk is thought to be associated with the increased risk of injury to the joints that athletes experience rather than a risk associated with physical activity. 

A recent study finds that elite-level athletes are later diagnosed with osteoarthritis at high rates. Out of over 3,000 retired Olympic athletes that the researchers surveyed, about 23% had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis. 

Participants in the study were most likely to experience symptoms of arthritis in the knees, followed by the lumbar spine and shoulders. The likelihood of developing osteoarthritis also increased with the incidence of prior knee or hip injury. 

Dr. Debbie Palmer, study co-author and member of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education and Sport, says that “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 further highlights this trend in elite Olympic athletes, who often have access to the best sports medicine available. Dr. Palmer says that “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 involved in the study hope that the results can shed light on the importance of injury prevention for athletes. Athletes can make different decisions about recovery and rehabilitation from injuries by knowing the risks of developing osteoarthritis. 

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Clinical Medical Insights: Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Disorders, British Journal of Sports Medicine

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Zoe (she/her) is a science writer and a scientist working in genomics. She received her B.S. from the University of Connecticut with a focus in Evolutionary Biology. At Labroots, she focuses on writing scientific content related to clinical research and diagnostics.
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