What are the links between sport, exercise and osteoarthritis?

A runner completing a marathon smiling and waving at the camera

We know that a healthy diet and lifestyle is good for us; exercise is one of the best things you can do to improve your symptoms of arthritis. So, why do we hear about runners developing knee problems? Can injury increase the chances of later developing osteoarthritis?

Collaborating and sharing expertise

Our Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis Versus Arthritis based at Nottingham Universities Hospitals NHS Trust, working alongside the Universities of Nottingham, Oxford, Southampton, Bath, Loughborough and Leeds aims to answer these questions.

To do this, the centre brings together researchers with expertise in osteoarthritis and sports medicine, nutrition, orthopaedics, bone and cartilage biology and physiotherapy.

As a team, these researchers are asking some key research questions:

  • Can we identify specific activities that are related to osteoarthritis symptoms in athletes and exercisers?
  • Can treatments like physiotherapy which help to prevent and manage osteoarthritis help to keep people active throughout their lives?
  • Can we identify the effects of exercise on quality of life for those currently with (or at risk of developing) osteoarthritis?

So, do runners really get knee problems?

For most people who do moderate exercise, there’s no increased risk of osteoarthritis, and they benefit from a healthy lifestyle choice without a great risk of injury.

However, many people believe lots of running will have damaging effect on joints, in particular the knees.

With the help of parkrun, the research centre is recruiting volunteers for the HALO study (health of adults’ longitudinal observational), to follow a group of runners over 15 years, observing the amount of running they do and any injuries they have, to see if these factors impact their joint health later in life.

This research could help us find out if there’s any truth behind to link between running and osteoarthritis in the knee and could lead to new advice or clinical practice.

Musculoskeletal health in the military

The research centre is also exploring musculoskeletal conditions in military personnel.

Recent advances in imaging and surgery have shown that hip pain can often occur before osteoarthritis develops.

Since hip pain is common in young military personnel, the MILO (Military Hip Rehabilitation Outcome) study looks at the link between military training (and the physical forces it imposes on the hips) and pre-arthritic hip pain.

Since starting, this study has developed and tested an exercise programme for military personal, with participants showing improved physical function of the hip. To see how beneficial this rehabilitation programme could be, it is now being compared to other treatments in a larger clinical study.

The Bio-Mil-OA study (Biomarkers and Joint Pain in Military Osteoarthritis, also run by researchers at this centre) explores the link between battlefield trauma and osteoarthritis, to see if trauma increases the risk of developing the condition.

This study is part of the much larger government funded ADVANCE Study, a collaboration between researchers and the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre to study long-term physical and psychological effects of battlefield casualties.

Working on prevention and better treatments

Based on their findings, the research centre helps to develop plans to help to prevent, assess and treat sports injury.

One of their studies has shown that intense physical activity in adolescence can lead to changes in shape of the hip joint (which increases the risk of later developing hip osteoarthritis), particularly in adolescent males who play competitive sport.

These findings have allowed clinicians to identify sportspeople at increased risk of developing osteoarthritis and suggest preventative treatments or exercises to help.

More information about the centre’s research projects can be found on their website.

Exercise is important

Reports suggesting that all runners have knee problems can make people lose confidence in exercising, and often don’t mention the wider health benefits of regular exercise.

The We Are Undefeatable campaign from Sport England is helping people with long-term health conditions to build physical activity into their lives, so that everyone can enjoy the benefits of exercise.