An Athlete’s Guide to Coping with Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative condition which affects millions of people all over the world. This condition can affect any joint of the body, but it mostly affects the hips, knees, big toe, lower back, and the hands. The cause of the condition is not very clear, but the risk factors are old age, injury, obesity, bone deformities, and family history. Activity levels, as in the case of athletes, are also a notable risk factor.

Osteoarthritis is characterized by a breakdown of the cartilage tissue on the joints. Besides understanding what is osteoarthritis and its effects, athletes should have an idea of some common symptoms which include unusual stiffness, pain, swelling, loss of flexibility, and grinding sounds when joints are flexed. As an athlete, overlooking some of these signs can be limiting as far as your career is concerned. Ignoring early signs often leads to severe symptoms. It could also result in other injuries or lead to mental problems like stress.

Initial Treatment Options

Physical therapy is the most effective way of managing osteoarthritis for athletes, particularly when it affects the hip or knee. The physical therapy should involve an exercise program that stretches and strengthens the muscles that support the arthritic joint. In the case of the knee, for example, the hamstring, quadriceps, and hip muscles are what should be strengthened. Stronger muscles around the joint mean less force or pressure exerted on the joint and hence less pain.

Exercising also helps the healthy cartilage to retain its mechanical properties, preventing osteoarthritis from worsening. The types of exercises to engage in, however, should be low-impact. Elliptical machine workouts and swimming are good examples of exercises.

Weight loss is another simple but effective way for athletes to manage osteoarthritis. The extra body weight exerts additional pressure on the arthritic joint. Losing weight, therefore, relieves the pressure and thus improves the condition.

Medical Treatment

The pain can become quite relentless for an athlete with advanced osteoarthritis. In such a case, medical intervention might be necessary. Some medical treatment options used include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroid injections, hyaluronic acid injections, and orthobiologics.

The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroid injections work mainly by reducing inflammation, and the effects are temporary. Hyaluronic injections are mostly on the knee joint. It is a synthetic lubricant similar to synovial fluid, which reduces friction in the joint. Orthobiologic injections are where platelet-rich plasma or stem cells are injected into the joint. The treatment is still considered experimental.

The Bottom Line

Typically, different approaches can be used at the same time to manage osteoarthritis for athletes. The approaches used may vary for different individuals depending on the stage of arthritis. The earlier the treatments begin, the more effective the treatment will be. If everything else fails, joint replacement can be considered.

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