(Reuters Health)—Playing team sports, especially soccer, at the elite level may lead to a higher risk for osteoarthritis, but the existing research is of such low quality it’s hard to say for sure, according to a recent review.
In an analysis of past studies filled with conflicting results, researchers found that long-distance running was the only elite-level sport that didn’t seem to raise arthritis risk, though even that question requires further study, they conclude.
The team looked at the top 32 most popular sports in the UK by participation to see whether individual sports, or intensity of sports participation, particular joints and particular types of injury are linked to the likelihood of developing arthritis. But they didn’t find a strong association across most studies or for amateur-level participation.
“This should be reassuring to consumers, particularly those who have had an injury,” said senior author Philip Conaghan, a professor of musculoskeletal medicine at the University of Leeds in the U.K.
Conaghan and his colleagues analyzed 46 studies, 31 of which showed a slight increased risk of osteoarthritis after sports exposure, including 19 with an increased risk in elite athletes. However, for all the questions they were examining, the researchers concluded that the studies were “low-quality” or “very low-quality” due to imprecision, inconsistency and poor study design.
“These analyses should be viewed with caution,” Conaghan’s team writes in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, online September 28. “The relationship between sports participation and osteoarthritis remains complicated and controversial since it’s currently based on low-quality evidence.”
Since the studies include self-reported questionnaires, different methods of diagnosing osteoarthritis and different participants, it’s difficult to determine what factors actually contribute to osteoarthritis, the researchers note. For instance, most studies focused only on lower-body injuries and didn’t include high-impact sports such as American football.
“People often question whether participating in sports increases their risk of injury or long-term joint damage,” said Edward Laskowski, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minnesota, who was not involved with the study.
“However, we are in the midst of a global epidemic of obesity and sedentary lifestyle,” he told Reuters Health by email. “The benefits of exercise have been well documented, and there is a great need to incorporate movement and activity into our lives.”
Americans develop 3 million new cases of osteoarthritis each year. Those who are older, obese, previously injured or have weak muscles are the most vulnerable.