Ex-Athletes Prone to Joint Problems

Stretching Can Help Weekend Warriors Avoid Same Fate, Says Expert

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 27, 2003 - Elite athletes may be putting themselves on the fast track to future joint problems. A new study finds that professional soccer players have 10 times the risk of later hip arthritis - even if they never suffered a noticeable hip injury.

And as for you weekend warriors -- there are things that can be done to lower your risk for future joint pain.

The new finding, reported in the February issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, builds on previous evidence showing later joint problems among former athletes. Two years ago, another research team reported in the same medical journal that nearly half of 284 professional soccer and rugby players reported having arthritis in a weight-bearing joint -- such as the knee or hip -- years after retiring.

But while most of those cases were attributed to a sports-related injury, none of the former pro athletes in this new study with hip arthritis had ever suffered a serious injury.

Among the 68 former soccer players, nine reported having hip osteoarthritis, or degenerative arthritis -- the most common form of arthritis. Six had hip replacements before or while in their 40s, says researcher Gordon J. Shepard, FRCS, a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon in England.

Even without a previous injury, hip problems occurred 10 times more frequently in the former athletes than in a group of 136 men of similar age who had never played professional sports. Why?

"It's unclear based on the small size of our study," Shepard tells WebMD. "But we are theorizing that some of them had groin strains that may be related to injuries of the hip joints, or the repetitive open chain nature of kicking a [soccer] ball may apply forces to the hip which result in early degeneration without any particularly serious injury."

Or it just may be the sport itself or a player's physical build, theorizes another sports medicine expert who has served as team orthopedist for the New York Mets and is currently tending to the U.S. Davis Cup tennis team, a semi-pro baseball club, and a professional soccer franchise.


"In soccer players and in many other sports that require fast running, we've seen many athletes develop hip osteoarthritis down the road - even if they didn't have a previous hip injury," says David Dines, MD, chairman of orthopedic surgery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and medical director for the Long Island Roughriders soccer team.

He notes that those "built" to master their sport seem to be most prone. "These people are often slightly bow-legged and perhaps a bit pigeon-toed -- a build like Jackie Robinson that helps gives them incredible speed," Dines tells WebMD. "Because of this, their hip joint is typically forward angled a bit and as they train and train for years or decades, they eventually wear away at the joint."

Of course, the constant pounding from hours of running each day are only aggravated by weight gain that often occurs after retiring. "If you put on 15 pounds to a joint that's already susceptible, that's a tremendous amount of additional stress."

Dines says this doesn't mean that hip problems are inevitable for all former soccer players, football running backs, or sprinters - or even recreational athletes with slightly bowed legs and a tendency to run with toes pointing slightly inward.

"These people, in particular, might be at a slightly higher risk of later hip problems," says Dines. "But no matter who you are, your age, your body type or what sport, if you do the appropriate warm-up exercises before running, you may help reduce the risk of these later hip problems."

His recommended stretches:

Place the heel of one foot on a chair or edge of a desktop in front of you so toes are pointing upward, while your other foot is flat on the floor.

  • Slowly lean forward to touch your toes, stretching your hamstring.
  • Hold the "touch" for about three-to-five seconds, and repeat several times.
  • Then switch feet.

Lying face up with your back to the floor,

  • Bring your left knee to your chest while your right leg remains stretched on the floor and hold for five seconds.
  • Lower your left leg and repeat with the other leg, bringing your right knee to your chest and holding for five seconds before lowering.
  • Bend your left knee and try to touch your right shoulder, holding for five seconds before lowering. Repeat with your right knee trying to touch your left shoulder. Repeat each of these exercises about five times before each workout.

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: British Journal of Sports Medicine, February 2003 • British Journal of Sports Medicine, October, 2000 • Gordon J. Shepard, FRCS, consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon, Royal Bolton Hospital, Lancashire, United Kingdom • David Dines, MD, chairman of orthopedic surgery, Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; medical director/team orthopedist, Long Island Roughriders soccer team, Long Island Ducks baseball team, U.S. Davis Cup tennis team.
© 2003 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.