Retired Olympians Face Higher Odds for Arthritis

Cara Murez

Cara Murez

Published on November 30, 2022

a person holding his knee in pain
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WEDNESDAY, Nov. 30, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Olympic athletes aren't like the rest of the population -- but this time it's in a far less positive way.

Two new studies show that athletes who performed at the top of their sport have a higher risk of developing arthritis and joint pain in later life. The linked studies found that 1 in 4 former Olympians dealt with these issues.

Those who'd been injured during their sporting career had a higher chance of knee and hip osteoarthritis when compared with the general population. These athletes also had an increased risk of lower back pain overall.

"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," said lead author Debbie Palmer, from the University of Edinburgh's Moray House School of Education and Sport in Scotland.

"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," Palmer said in a university news release.

The international research included almost 3,400 retired Olympians, averaging about 45 years of age, who'd participated in a total of 57 different sports.

Researchers asked about the health of their bones, joints, muscles and spine, as well as if they were experiencing joint pain and whether they had been diagnosed with osteoarthritis.

The research team also surveyed more than 1,700 people from the general population who were about age 41.

The researchers used statistical models to compare the prevalence of spine, upper limb and lower limb osteoarthritis and pain in retired Olympians with the general population, considering factors that could influence risk such as injury, recurrent injury, age, sex and obesity.

Knees, lumbar spine and shoulder were the most injury-prone areas and the most common locations for osteoarthritis and pain for Olympians. After sustaining a joint injury, the Olympians were more likely to develop osteoarthritis than someone in the general population who had a similar injury.

The findings may help people make decisions about recovery and rehabilitation from injuries to prevent recurrences, the researchers suggested. It may also help inform prevention strategies.

The two studies were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The World Olympians Association funded the studies with a research grant from the International Olympic Committee.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on osteoarthritis.

SOURCE: University of Edinburgh, news release, Nov. 23, 2022

What This Means for You

Olympic athletes may seize glory while competing, but a new study shows they are more likely to suffer joint pain and osteoarthritis in retirement.

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