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Ex-Athletes Prone to Joint Problems

Stretching Can Help Weekend Warriors Avoid Same Fate, Says Expert
WebMD Health News

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."

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