Does Sports Participation Cause Arthritis?

Most everyone was active in sports at some point in their younger years. And many people remain active through middle age and even into their older years. Whether it was high school football, college varsity sports, or recreational running, we all have had our days as an athlete. But can we blame arthritis on these sports activities?

Runners running on roadway
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In most cases, probably not. While sports are often blamed for arthritis, the truth is that most people with arthritis have other factors contributing to the problem. There are a number of issues that contribute to the development of arthritis, and trying to single out a particular risk factor is likely not possible. With so many different contributions, it can be impossible to know exactly why one individual has a bad hip or knee. In fact, recent studies have shown that sports have a beneficial effect on cartilage, even aggressive, intense sports. Cartilage is nourished by activity, and sports can help to maintain healthy cartilage.

Sports Injuries and Arthritis

The one major exception is athletes who sustain an injury to the joint. These injuries can affect the cartilage and lead to the development of arthritis. While a traumatic injury to the joint during a sporting event may cause concern for short-term return to play, most doctors worry more about the long-term implications of the damage that is done inside the joint. Injuries that can lead to the development of arthritis include:​

Ligament Injuries

Ligament injuries can cause severe injuries to cartilage and may lead to the early development of arthritis. In the knee joint, the most common ligament injury is an ACL tear. When the ACL is torn, the knee joint subluxes (partially dislocates). This subluxation can cause cartilage cell damage and lead to early arthritis.


Fractures around a joint occur to the bone supporting the cartilage. Injuries to the bone supporting the cartilage can cause the cartilage to heal with uneven joint surfaces. This leads to accelerated wearing of the cartilage and the development of early arthritis of the joint.


Dislocations can cause damage to the cartilage each time the joint dislocates. For example, patients who sustain a shoulder dislocation can injure the cartilage each time the shoulder comes out of the joint. This is why some surgeons recommend repairing the injured shoulder to prevent recurrent (repeat) dislocations.

Direct Cartilage Injury

The cartilage surfaces of most joints are well-protected, but they can be injured with forceful blows to the joint. A direct hit to the front of the knee, for example, may lead to an injury to the cartilage. This can also lead to the development of early arthritis.

Sports Activity in Patients with Arthritis

In patients who have signs of early arthritis, it is critically important to maintain fitness. Patients with early arthritis benefit from weight management and muscular strengthening. These help to minimize the burden on the joints and relieve the pain from arthritis.

Activities best suited for patients with arthritis are low-impact activities like swimming, cycling, and walking. These low-impact exercises help to prevent further damage to the joint. Furthermore, by keeping the muscles around the joint strong and keeping body weight down, these low impact activities can help to alleviate symptoms of chronic joint pain associated with arthritis.

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By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.