Advanced Osteoarthritis and Athletes: How Physical Therapy Can Help You Return To Competitive Sports

Joint pain can make even everyday activities challenging. For athletes, the degenerative pain of osteoarthritis can feel especially devastating. If you’re used to the challenges and health benefits of participating in sports, slowing down is a big adjustment. The good news is that you may not have to give up your sport for long. With the right physical therapy and pain medication, you can get back to the activities you love, including athletics.

What is advanced osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a condition that occurs when the cartilage that lines your joints starts to break down. Cartilage acts like a shock absorber when there is impact. If improperly stressed, over time the cartilage starts to crumble. It can occur in any joint on your body and is commonly seen in the knees and hips. If you have osteoarthritis in your joints, you might notice:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • A crunching sound when you move the joint
  • Stiffness
  • A loss of flexibility

Eventually, the cartilage can completely break down. Without cartilage as cushion, your bones rub together, causing increased pain.

Are athletes at higher risk of osteoarthritis?

While people may tell you that athletes are at increased risk for osteoarthritis since they put more wear and tear on their joints, recent studies indicate this might not be true. In fact, exercise is increasingly found to have a protective effect on joints. Plus, obesity is a known risk factor for osteoarthritis since carrying extra weight puts stress on your joints. What athletes do risk, however, is injuring their joints, and repeated injuries can lead to osteoarthritis. In fact, studies estimate that 50% of athletes who sustain a ligament or meniscus tear will have osteoarthritis within the 10 to 20 years following the injury.

“It is my experience as a physical therapist that when athletes have arthritic joints, they also have other musculoskeletal problems,” says Dr. Patrick Donovan, owner of Heather Lane PT. “These include posture restrictions, ankle or hip tightness, and other locations of pain. It’s important to not look only at the OA-stricken joint, but also how that aberrant movement affects nearby joints in the body.”

No matter the underlying cause of your osteoarthritis, Dr. Donovan stresses the importance of monitoring the movements or positions that cause you pain. PT intervention of knee arthritis commonly looks to the ankle and hip muscles to pick up the slack. Maintaining an athletic routine without any intervention or pain management can worsen the strain on your joints and might cause your cartilage to break down faster.

Treating athletes for osteoarthritis

The first step is to make an appointment with either your primary care physician or your physical therapist. In primary care, you’ll have x-rays and get an evaluation. Typically, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) is prescribed for activity-induced pain. Next, your doctor may recommend physical therapy, which is often the next step after a diagnosis. Injections and surgery are not considered first-line defense against arthritis.

In PT, you’ll work through a program of exercises to strengthen the muscles around your affected joint and increase your flexibility. The exercise will depend on the severity of your osteoarthritis and the location of your pain. For example, you’ll concentrate on your leg muscles if you have osteoarthritis in your knee. Stronger muscles absorb more force, allowing you to move through a greater range of motion with less pain.

If you enjoy low-impact exercises such as swimming or biking, your physical therapist may recommend adding those to your routine. You can tailor these exercises to your pain level and gradually build up. You also can modify the exercise you already do while you’re being treated. Doing your normal exercise routine at a lower pace, with less intensity and for shorter periods of time, can help you manage your osteoarthritis.

Your progress will vary depending on how advanced your osteoarthritis is and your course of treatment. With proper strength training, you can get back to sports and be in less pain than ever before. You’ll build back up slowly, working with your physical therapist and stopping when the pain is intense. A good way to judge how long a return to sports might take for you is to talk to an expert. At Heather Lane Physical Therapy, we can help you reach this goal. Schedule a free consultation today, and we can start working with you on a plan to get you back to the things you love.

Scroll to Top