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Arthritis is like a tree — it has one root, but branches off into many different forms. The general term of arthritis includes inflammation and stiffness of the joints, sometimes accompanied with pain. However, osteoarthritis is just one of the many branches of arthritis, and in fact, it’s actually the most common. This form of arthritis, also known as “wear and tear arthritis,” causes a breakdown of cartilage in joints and can occur in almost any joint in the body.

Since this form of arthritis is associated with the breakdown of a connective tissue, you would think most people who get this type of arthritis are elderly. However, this type of arthritis can occur in athletes as well, and at any age.

A Short Background of Osteoarthritis

This degenerative condition commonly occurs in the hips, knees, neck, and spine because these areas support much of your weight. However, it also affects smaller areas of the body like the fingers, thumb, and large toe as well.

Normally, your joints and the edge of each bone is protected with a rubbery tissue called cartilage that provides a smooth surface for easy joint motion. But with osteoarthritis, the cartilage breaks down over time and can leave bones exposed. The more you move, the more your cartilage and bones break down as well. Some people may even develop growths on their bones called spurs, which is a defense mechanism that may leave a small protrusion near the joint. In addition, parts of your bone or cartilage may chip off and float around in the joint, which can cause even more pain. Once the cartilage is worn away, the bones start to rub against each other and it can lead to further joint damage, stiffness, limited range of motion, and more pain.

Why Osteoarthritis Can Occur in Athletes

Because osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease, athletes are susceptible to cartilage damage because of repetitive motions that are often associated with one particular sport. Think about how often you move your arm using the same movement and technique when throwing a football or kicking a soccer ball. Over time, the repetitive motions can wear down the cartridge that protects your bones.

According to research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, football, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, and rugby are the common culprits that can cause osteoarthritis in athletes. In fact, more than 80 percent of football players who have had a knee injury due to the sport showed signs of osteoarthritis 10 to 30 years after competing. The same results were found in soccer players as well.

If You’re an Athlete, Get Checked for Osteoarthritis

Diagnosis of osteoarthritis can be difficult in athletes because aches and pains someone may feel can commonly be misconstrued as a pulled muscle or a bruise. If you feel that you have felt pain in one specific area for an extended period of time, visit your doctor. They can give you a physical exam and perform diagnostic tests to check if you have osteoarthritis.