Does running cause osteoarthritis?

Does running cause osteoarthritis?

Physiotherapy clients sometimes walk into my clinic and say things like “I want to start running but doesn’t all that impact wear out your joints?” or “my doctor says I have knee osteoarthritis and that I shouldn’t run anymore”. Obviously that doctor isn’t a runner. Hopefully this blog post can help clear up a few misunderstandings in relation to osteoarthritis and running.

Osteoarthritis is the gradual breakdown and eventual loss of the joint cartilage that is found on the ends of your bones. This cartilage allows the joint to move smoothly through it’s range of movement. Why is this important when it comes to running? Well some strong studies are now published to show that repetitive impact on a joint actually helps stimulate cartilage growth! This supports a massive systematic review that included 42 studies and over 240,000 people which found the prevalence of hip or knee osteoarthritis in non-runners was 10.2% compared with recreational runners who were 3 times lower at 3.5%.

However, one must proceed not with caution, but education. In previous posts I have talked about injury prevention and making sure your muscles, tendons, ligament do not exceed their load capacity. The same thing needs to be considered for bone health. Over straining the joints beyond it’s current capacity will cause an imbalance in the remodelling phase which could lead to long term cartilage damage. Like everything, increase your training loads gradually and allow the body to adapt. In fact, that study I mentioned above found that competitive runners (international or paid runners) had a prevalence of 13.3%.

For those who already have osteoarthritis do not give up on running! Depending on individual factors, a tailored strengthening approach with a gradual exposure to mechanical stress is the right approach for you. An experienced physiotherapist will work out your current load capacity and calculate a tolerable fitness regime before progressing you through the adaptation zone. You must consider a non-surgical strengthening approach before considering joint replacements.

So how can I summarise this:

  1. Cartilage CAN adapt to mechanical stress
  2. Running is NOT associated with higher rates of osteoarthritis
  3. Even older individuals with or without osteoarthritis display cartilage adaptions.
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