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Is Running Bad for Your Joints? Tips for Protecting Against Osteoarthritis

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Do your knees ever ache after you go for a run? Do your joints feel sore after a long session on the treadmill? If you experience frequent pain or soreness in your knees, it might not just be a matter of the kind of activity your doing – it could be the amount and the intensity.

New research suggests that running could actually benefit your knees. The research also suggests, however, that there is a sweet spot for just how much running is good for you and might help protect your joints against osteoarthritis and other joint problems. Keep learning to read more about how running affects your joints and to receive some tips for protecting against osteoarthritis.

Could Running Actually Benefit Your Joints?

Many people who are long-time runners end up with pain in their knees. Knee osteoarthritis, a common joint condition in runners, is the result of cartilage breakdown which occurs after years of stress on the joint. It seems to make sense that running would put undue strain on the joints responsible for supporting and stabilizing your body with each step you take. New research suggests, however, that the opposite may, in fact, be true.

In 2017, a meta-analysis combining data from 17 different studies was published in the Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy. These studies involved nearly 115,000 participants, men and women, including runners at all levels as well as people who were sedentary or did not run. The authors of the study found that only 3.5% of people who ran on a recreational level experienced hip or knee arthritis while people who were sedentary or did not run had a higher rate of hip and knee arthritis, just over 10%. It was also found that the group with the highest rate of hip or knee arthritis (13.3%) was among professional and elite athletes.[1]

Though this study did not assess the impact of other factors such as obesity, prior injury, or occupational workload on the risk for future knee and hip arthritis in runners, the results are certainly telling. The combined results of these studies would suggest that running at a recreational level is safe for general health and that it also benefits hip and knee joint health. On the flip side, forgoing exercise may increase the risk for knee and hip arthritis, as can high-volume running, which is defined as running more than 57 miles per week.

What is Osteoarthritis, Anyway?

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis, and it occurs when the protective cartilage on the bones wears down slowly over time. This condition affects millions of people around the world, and it can damage any joint in the body, though it is most commonly seen in the knees, hands, hips, and spine. Though the underlying damage cannot be reversed, symptoms of osteoarthritis can be managed with pain medication as well as lifestyle changes to control body weight. Treatments may also be effective in slowing the progression of the disease or improving both pain and joint function.

Because osteoarthritis develops slowly, symptoms may not immediately be present. Pain during or after movement is the most common symptom, though you may also experience joint stiffness in the morning or after a period of inactivity. Some people with osteoarthritis find that their joints are tender to the touch or that they lose some flexibility and range of motion over time. As the condition progresses, you may hear or feel a grating sensation when using the affected joint and you could develop bone spurs or extra bits of bone that form around the joint.

Some of the factors which may increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis include age, sex, obesity, and genetics. As you can imagine, your risk for osteoarthritis increases with age. What you may not know is that you could inherit a genetic tendency toward the disease and your risk may be even higher if you are also a woman. Obesity is another risk factor for carrying extra body weight puts stress on your weight-bearing joints – excess fat tissue can also trigger inflammation in the joints. Joint injuries caused by sports or accidents can develop into osteoarthritis and having a job that places repetitive stress on a particular joint may increase your risk as well.

Other Tips for Maintaining Bone and Joint Health

While you may not be able to put off osteoarthritis forever if you have multiple risk factors, there are things you can do to reduce your risk or to slow the progression of the condition. Treatments for osteoarthritis are usually targeted at reducing inflammation and managing pain, but physical or occupational therapy may help to increase flexibility or range of motion as well. Surgical procedures may also be an option to lubricate the joints, to realign bones, or to replace the joint entirely.

In terms of lifestyle changes that can help you maintain bone and joint health, here are a few of the most effective options:

  • Exercise regularly. While it may seem like exercise is something you should avoid if you have joint pain, it can actually enhance your endurance and build the muscles supporting and stabilizing the joint.
  • Lose weight. Even if you are just a little overweight, the added stress can damage your joints more quickly – even a slight weight loss could relieve some of the pressure and reduce pain.
  • Wear braces or inserts. If you have pain while walking or standing, wearing show inserts could shift some of your weight in a way that relieves the strain. Braces may also help to immobilize the affected joint or to provide additional support.
  • Take joint-supporting supplements. Supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin may help if you have osteoarthritis – just don’t take them if you’re allergic to shellfish or if you’re on blood thinners like warfarin.
  • Use assistive devices. If your current treatment plan isn’t working to manage your pain, using an assistive device such as a cane or walker could take stress off the joint. You may also want to install grab bars in your bathroom as a safety precaution.

In addition to these lifestyle changes, some people have had success with alternative medicine treatments such as acupuncture. If you aren’t quite sold on alternative medicine, something as simple as taping the joint prior to exercise or stretching and massaging might help minimize pain.

  • [1] “Running and Osteoarthritis: Does Recreational or Competitive Running Increase the Risk?” Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 2017; 47(6): 391. <https://www.jospt.org/doi/full/10.2519/jospt.2017.0505>

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