Knee Arthritis Is On The Rise Among Young Athletes. Are You At Risk?

Photo: Jovo Jovanovic

Arthritis—more specifically, knee arthritis—is on the rise in the United States. According to a new study of more than 2,500 skeletons, some dating back 6,000 years, the prevalence of knee arthritis has nearly doubled since 1940.

In an age when many of us rely on exercise to release stress and boost happiness, this startling statistic may send you straight from a nearby running path to your couch with a bowl of popcorn and a new season of your favorite Netflix show. But take heart: There's a lot you can do to protect yourself from arthritis.

Why arthritis is on the rise.

While knee arthritis is sounding the most alarm bells at the moment—over 20 percent of people over age 45 in the United States suffer from it—joints like our shoulders, hips, wrists, and more are hardly immune.

But how does arthritis happen? "Any joints sustain injuries due to degenerative changes over time, as a result of overuse and poor joint mechanics," says Athena Bellmaine, DPT and clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy. "Shoulder joint injuries are usually a result of overuse (a lot of overhead activity), and hip injuries are typically a result of degenerative changes. Knee injuries are a result of stresses that are put onto the joint, which can cause soft-tissue damage, cartilage wear, and poor joint mechanics. Abnormal stresses to the knee joint are due to muscle strength, and flexibility imbalances lead to wear and tear on the joints."

To account for its rise, here's the good news—except in the case of injury, it's typically not exercise-related. More likely, it has to do with the rise of obesity (which puts stress on the joints) and the fact that we're living longer. More years means more wear and tear on our joints and more chances for arthritis to develop.

Photo: Lumina

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When old injuries result in arthritis.

When young people develop arthritis, it's often related to an old injury and is considered post-traumatic osteoarthritis. According to research on this topic, when adolescents or young adults suffer from a joint injury, X-rays show evidence of joint damage within a decade. In fact, people who have suffered from knee trauma are three to six times more likely to develop arthritis down the road—and more than half of them are under 65.

"When the smooth cartilage that lines the ends of the bone wear down over time, the bones that articulate come into contact more, creating a 'bone-on-bone' mechanism," Bellmaine explains of why old injuries result in arthritis. "This eventually leads to arthritis, which is inflammation of the joint."

How can you prevent knee arthritis from happening to you?

With the right tweaks and proper recovery, knee arthritis is preventable. If you're a yogi, you're in luck—the strength and mobility work required in a single class leads to strong, pain-free knees down the road. But if yoga isn't your thing, other active recovery methods help as well.

"To prevent knee and other joint injuries, the best things people can do now are to exercise and stretch," says Bellmaine. "Maintaining strength of their hips, glutes, and lower extremities, as well as improving flexibility, will decrease the risk of poor joint mechanics and deterioration of soft tissue and cartilage, which protect the joint."

And if you think not moving is the way to go, think again—weight gain is tough on the joints. The best thing you can do to help your joints age gracefully is to mix strength and mobility work into your exercise routine. Your arthritis-free knees will thank you when you're 75.

Looking for new recovery tactics? Here's why you should take up gyrotonics.

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