Wait until 2030 if knee replacement surgery seems like a rite of passage at a certain age. Because of increased weight gain and an aging population, the current numbers – around 65,000 per year – are expected to rise by 276 percent by then.
On the other hand, knee pain from osteoarthritis does not have to be associated with aging or running. We can forget about blaming it all on “wear and tear” now that new research has shed new light on its causes.
According to Dr. Sandeep Singh, a leading orthopedic specialist from Bhubaneswar, kilo creep is a primary culprit because it adds extra weight to the knee joint. Too much fat around the waist produces inflammatory chemicals that damage knee cartilage.
“We hear a lot about how important it is to lose weight, but the focus should be on preventing weight gain in the first place.” People gain half a kilo per year on average until they reach the age of 55, but it’s far easier to avoid gaining 500g per year than it is to lose five kilos or more ten years later.”
Trials in the clinic
Furthermore, once osteoarthritis has set in, weight loss doesn’t help as much as you’d think – clinical trials have shown that a five to ten percent weight loss has only a minor effect, about the same as taking Panadol, he adds.
“It’s too late. The harm has now been done. However, we should take advantage of the reality that evading or reducing additional weight gain will stop the niggling joint pains that so many of us experience in our 30s and 40s from worsening.
“Those initial twinges of knee discomfort are the call to action,” he says, “not only to lose weight or prevent further gain but also to have blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked.”
“When you take an MRI of a knee with osteoarthritis, you often see the narrowing of the blood vessels and joint injury – likely. Such narrowed blood arteries are not giving adequate nutrients to the joint.”
Recreational runners may be doing their knees a favor by doing so.
“People are concerned that running will wear out the knee joint,” says Dr. Sandeep Singh, “but it can improve joint health by providing nutrition to the articular cartilage of the knee while keeping the joint moving.”
“When compared to people who run at an elite or competitive level, as well as people who live a more sedentary lifestyle, recreational runners have lower rates of knee osteoarthritis.”
“Runners can also reduce their risk of knee pain by running on softer surfaces such as grass rather than concrete, running for shorter distances, and avoiding downhill running.”
A physiotherapist can also assist you by checking your running biomechanics and, if necessary, advising you on how to retrain your running gait.
And what about weightlifting? That shouldn’t be an issue either. He says, as long as you’re taught how to lift correctly and don’t lift a weight you’re not ready for.
Sports Injuries That Are Common
However, injuries to the meniscus (the cartilage pad cushioning the knee joint) and ligaments attached to the joint, including the anterior cruciate ligament, are common in sports like netball, football, and basketball predispose knees to osteoarthritis later on, according to Dr. Sandeep Singh.
“In addition to twisting and landing injuries, knocks to the outside of the knee joint can also cause problems in these sports.”
The best way to avoid future knee osteoarthritis is to prevent injuries to the knee joint.
If your knee is injured, however, you can reduce your risk of osteoarthritis by seeing a sports physician or physiotherapist and receiving proper rehabilitation, as well as maintaining a healthy weight and staying physically active.
“We’ve done a good job as a community of reducing heart disease and skin cancer, for example, by being aware of risk factors earlier in life – but we need more public awareness of how to keep our joints healthy throughout our lives,” he says.
Knee osteoarthritis may not be fatal in and of itself. Still, the immobility it can cause later in life can be highly debilitating and exacerbate other illnesses.
“As much as possible, stay fit, strong, and avoid gaining weight.” “Aerobic exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight, and recreational running is an example of an exercise you can do without worrying about knee damage,” says Dr. Sandeep Singh.
“A physiotherapist or exercise physiologist can design an exercise program to help reduce pain and improve mobility if you already have knee pain.”