Preventing knee osteoarthritis in young athletes

When kids injure their knees playing sports like soccer, not many of us think about how that injury will manifest itself ten or fifteen years down the road. Millions of Canadians currently live with the pain and disability of osteoarthritis (OA), a disabling joint condition. It is estimated that by 2040, 25% of all Canadians will have OA. This percentage will be higher in those who suffer a traumatic knee injury.

Dr. Jackie Whittaker is a Research Scientist of Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation at Arthritis Research Canada. The focus of her research is understanding the connection between youth sport knee injuries and early onset osteoarthritis, as well as osteoarthritis prevention. “This is not an older person’s disease. The reality is that we are seeing people in their thirties who have OA”.

“My research is focused on trying to reduce risk factors for osteoarthritis after a youth sport knee injury. I want to increase awareness in young people who hurt their knees playing sports. I want them to know they are at risk for developing OA, but also that they can take steps to prevent it,” Whittaker states.

“Soccer is the highest participatory sport in Canada. More kids play soccer than hockey. It’s a sport with a high injury risk too. We do have a very good injury prevention program – the 11+ Injury Prevention Program, for example. We know it can reduce knee injuries by up to 50%. What we don’t know is what someone can do after an injury to minimize their risk for developing OA?” Whittaker continues.

“We have identified that obesity and muscle weakness are risk factors. So keeping muscles strong and staying active after an injury to avoid weight gain are important.  The red flag isn’t when you have swelling and pain. It’s when you are becoming less and less active because of your knee. The last thing you want someone to do is stop sport or physical activities altogether. However, it can be challenging and sometimes support is needed.”

Currently, the treatment of young athletes that suffer a knee injury focuses on returning them to sport. Few seek care beyond their injury, and little effort is made to prevent OA. Further research with a team of patients and clinicians is expected to improve treatment outcomes and reduce the burden of OA and related conditions for young Canadians who suffer a sport knee injury.

For more information about Arthritis Research Canada research studies: https://www.arthritisresearch.ca/research/stop-osteoarthritis-soar/

Photo: Stop OsteoARthritis (SOAR): A program to prevent osteoarthritis after a sport-related knee injury (CNW Group/Arthritis Research Canada).

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