Running and Arthritis – Will running wear out my joints?

by Rick Heyden, Physiotherapist, presented to Sun Run Training group April 2018

There are many types of arthritis, however, the most common is Osteoarthritis (OA). Osteoarthritis, specifically primary OA, is linked to aging and genetics and can be thought of as a normal aging process of the joint. We are generally comfortable with the outward signs of aging and would not be concerned to see a person’s hair turn grey, or skin become looser. We are not, however, used to seeing what’s happening inside our joints and tend to get concerned when there are signs of arthritis or degenerative change on an Xray, especially if that appears alongside pain. But there is an ever-growing body of evidence that encourages us not to worry.

  • Studies of former varsity athletes show no difference in the development of hip and knee arthritis in swimmers vs cross country runners
  • Runners are at no increased risk of symptomatic (painful) OA vs non-runners
  • As a general group, runners have been found to have a lower BMI than non-runners; obesity is a known factor in the development of OA
  • Most running injuries occur due to overuse, inappropriate progression of training volume or poor biomechanics
  • Moderate running does not promote progression or development of osteoarthritis and decreases the risk of other chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • Secondary arthritis is linked to a history of joint injury (i.e. prior ACL tear), and may require closer supervision by a physiotherapist

What if I already have diagnosed arthritis findings on Xray/MRI, but no pain?

  • There is little correlation between Xray findings of arthritis/degenerative change and pain
  • 85% of adults with no knee pain had signs of knee arthritis
  • 48% of painfree adults between age 20-22 had signs of degenerative or bulging discs
  • 77% of adult hockey players with no history of hip pain showed signs of arthritis

What if I already have arthritis and pain?

  • Despite all these facts, for many people arthritis is a painful and disabling condition, but it is not a hopeless one!
  • Running may not be appropriate for everyone, but a physiotherapist monitored exercise program is vital for improvement in symptoms and function
  • Allowing arthritis to force you into inactivity will lead to increases in pain, weakness and disability
  • Numerous studies have shown that the best ways to improve pain related to arthritis are consistent exercise and weight loss

So can I go out and start running today?

Maybe! But before you do, it’s always a good idea to check in with a physiotherapist and have them assess your biomechanics to see if you are at risk for any overuse injuries. As well, the two of you will talk about your current fitness level, goals, and injury history in order to determine a safe and achievable plan that will gradually increase your training without increasing the risk of injury. As always, you should also check in with your family doctor to determine if you have any medical conditions that may limit your ability to exercise safely.