Do joints actually wear out from overuse?
There’s a good chance you’ve heard this grievance raised at one point or another, if ever you’ve been in a conversation about work-outs or exercise routines. If you exercise too often – it is postulated – your joints will begin to develop aches and pains, and this – so they say – is a sign that said joints are deteriorating, because you’re working them too much.
The fact that pain can develop in conjunction with regular exercise is clear beyond question. However, the cause of said pain is often attributed incorrectly.
First, let’s talk about the primary victims in this tale: load-bearing joints.
How do load-bearing joints work?
There are some joints that do most of the work when it comes to you carrying yourself around. Your hips, knees and ankles are considered the primary weight-bearers, since they take most of the body’s weight through them when we’re being active.
Coating these joints is a surface of articular cartilage (hyaline cartilage, which aids in the smooth articulation of joints and found on the articular surfaces of bones). An amazing substance, really. Apart from making the joints stronger and more resilient, it reduces friction so effectively that people rarely even notice that their bones are rubbing against each other, under normal circumstances.
However, this cartilage may not always be in the best, most even condition possible. The coverage of articular cartilage can become thin or patchy – resulting in osteoarthritis.
So we’ve found our culprit: cartilage that has broken down or deteriorated, increasing friction and inflammation in your joints. But what could be the cause of the cartilage being lost? Could it be that frequent exercise wears the cartilage down?
Does exercise cause cartilage to wear out?
Short answer: no. In fact, recent research could suggest quite the opposite.
A fascinating peer-reviewed study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (2021) found that recreational runners had higher quantities of articular cartilage in their knees than a control group of sedentary people.
Far from wearing the cartilage out, the data appears to suggest that regular exercise may even promote cartilage development, or at the very least help a person keep more of their cartilage. Neither possibility has yet been categorically proven, but it is certain that higher quantities of cartilage on joints and bones greatly reduces the possibility of developing osteoarthritis (the most common type of joint disease). Furthermore, the only proven causes for a deterioration in articular cartilage have little to do with how much a person works their joints.
Following a recent operation to a joint, its frequent or strenuous use without accommodating for recovery time can cause damage to the cartilage. The same is true of suffering a fracture that affected the joint, or having sustained injuries to the joint on multiple occasions. All are confirmed links with osteoarthritis, along with other factors such as age or biological sex (osteoarthritis is more common in women than men). No link has been found between regular exercise and cartilage break-down, and research into the subject would suggest the inverse probability.
So, it’s pretty safe to say that regular exercise is not, of itself, bad for your joints. Let’s put that myth to bed.
That’s not to say that working out can’t cause joint-related pain, though – and there are measures you should undertake to help prevent or mitigate this.
What should I do to look after my joints?
Firstly, make sure to always do stretches of relevant body parts both before and after your work-out. To figure out when, where and how to warm up and warm down, check out this useful guide demonstrating the PEP programme – a rigorously proven set of pre- and post-exercise stretches and strength exercises. Any or all of the listed stretches may be useful for you, whether you’re running, playing sports or hitting the gym.
Warm-up routines are an essential part of muscle maintenance. For further advice on how to keep your muscles and joints in shape, we recommend seeing a physio. This is especially true if you’re an athlete or work out regularly. We can help with this.
If you experience any pain or swelling in the joints you use during exercise, we would always recommend seeing a physio. They can offer an in-depth assessment of the affected areas, give an expert diagnosis of any issues and provide/prescribe treatments, personalised to you and your overall condition.
This article does not constitute medical advice; we would always recommend calling 111 or visiting the NHS 111 website if you have any specific concerns about your health. In the case of an emergency, call 999.
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