Osteoarthritis and Sports

According to data from the NHS (National Health Service), osteoarthritis is the most prevalent type of arthritis. It affects more than nine million people in the UK, and despite regular exercise, sportsmen, and sportswomen, whether professional or amateur, aren’t spared.


But should an osteoarthritis diagnosis be the end of your sporting career? That’s what we want to address today.

What is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease. It occurs when the protective cartilage which cushions the bones wears down, leading to inflammation. Osteoarthritis can be classified into two; primary and secondary osteoarthritis.

Primary osteoarthritis comes naturally and generally affects the fingers, toes, thumbs, spine, knees, and hips. As for secondary osteoarthritis, it is caused by injury; for example, sports injuries or other repetitive stress which can wear down the cartilage.

How is Osteoarthritis Diagnosed?

For many athletes, diagnosing osteoarthritis is quite hard as the pain is often confused for the normal body aches. Early diagnosis is better, and that’s why you should consider seeing a rheumatologist if you experience any of the below symptoms:

1. Pain when moving or after moving the affected joint

2. Tenderness. The affected joints feel tender when pressure is applied to them

3. Joint stiffness especially after being inactive for a while

4. Swelling which is caused by inflammation of soft tissues around the joints

5. Reduced joint flexibility

Causes of Osteoarthritis

1. Old age: The cartilage wears down as you age

2. Gender: Women have higher chances of suffering from osteoarthritis

3. Obesity: Overweight persons can cause stress on joints

4. Genetics: Some people inherit osteoarthritis

5. Injury: Sports and repetitive strenuous activity

How to Manage Osteoarthritis

After a definite diagnosis, the rheumatologist will determine the best solution. This is dependant on the extent of the damage to the cartilage. There are osteoarthritis medications, for example, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, narcotics, analgesics, and dietary supplements. Surgeries like arthroscopy and joint replacement may also be recommended, alongside therapies.

Athletes Who Overcame Osteoarthritis

While osteoarthritis may tag along with severe pain which may curtail movement and mobility, some inspirational athletes managed to overcome the condition and still had successful careers.

One of the best stories is that of former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal who was diagnosed with toe osteoarthritis in 2002 and underwent surgery. The 7-foot-1-inch former Lakers man has lived with toe osteoarthritis, although he’s now retired. His weight has been among the reasons for the condition, together with the strenuous activity on the court.

Another athlete who managed through osteoarthritis is Bart Conner, who won two gold medals at the 1986 Olympics. The gymnast was diagnosed with osteoarthritis at just 22, and even though he stuck around the sport for some time, he wasn’t the same.