Patricia Carswell November 17, 2016

Patricia Carswell is a health and fitness writer. She has written for all of the major newspapers and a wide variety of fitness publications, and is writer of the award-winning blog, Girl on the River. 

If you participate regularly in sport, the chances are you’re no stranger to aches and pains. But being able to distinguish between muscle soreness — part and parcel of training in most sports — and joint pain, which can be more problematic, is incredibly important. What’s more, if you already have joint issues, it’s crucial to know if you have arthritis: its treatment will probably be different from other conditions that may also contribute to joint pain. So then, we’ve put together a guide to help you distinguish what’s arthritis, and what’s joint pain.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis isn’t one single condition — it’s a way of referring to joint pain or disease, of which there are more than 100 types. As a sportsperson, what we’re talking about is osteoarthritis, the most common type, which is caused by cartilage (what protects your bones at the joints) wearing away. Your bones rub together as a result of this.

Where problems can arise for athletes is when they damage a joint by injury. It’s the injury that affects the cartilage and can lead to arthritis. Footballers and rugby players, for example, are prone to knee injuries such as tears to the anterior cruciate ligament. Gymnasts often sustain wrist, arm, and hand injuries, whereas tennis is known for shoulder and elbow injuries. Encouragingly, runners are — contrary to popular belief — not especially prone to arthritis. Swimming and cycling are also relatively arthritis-free.

There are certain factors which will increase your risk of arthritis, however, some of which you can’t control. If you have a family history of arthritis, you may be more prone to it. Age, unfortunately, is also a factor due to joint wear and tear. Obesity, too, increases your risk of developing arthritis as it puts stress on your joints — overweight people have a higher incidence of arthritis.

What are the symptoms?

The classic symptoms are swollen, aching joints, fatigue, stiffness that lasts for more than an hour, and a decline in the range of motion. It can start slowly or come on very suddenly, and may begin with a rash.

An early sign of arthritis – pre-arthritis – occurs when you have inflammation of the tissues around a joint capsule. This can cause joint stiffness, which can be mistaken simply for normal ageing.

Arthritis can easily be confused with other conditions, which is why diagnosis is so important. The symptoms can overlap with:

• lupus: the autoimmune disorder that can affect the joints.

• lyme disease: (spread by tick bites) which often presents as a large swollen joint in the extremity.

• gout: often starts with pain and swelling in the big toe but can attack the ankles, knees, wrists, elbows and fingers.

• ankylosing spondylitis: often manifesting in inflammatory lower back pain which is worse in the mornings and improves as the day goes on.

• fibromyalgia: characterised by widespread pain in the muscles and fatigue.

Because there is such an overlap of symptoms, it’s important to seek professional medical advice if you have any of the common symptoms of arthritis. Whilst it’s helpful to be able to spot the symptoms of arthritis listed above, self-diagnosis is never recommended — so always consult your GP as soon as problems arise.

Prevention and management of arthritis

There’s a lot you can do to prevent arthritis, and to manage it if you have mild to moderate arthritis. Staying active is the most important thing, to encourage blood flow to the cartilage. If you are already exhibiting symptoms, stick to low impact sports such as swimming, cycling, and walking and seek professional help to work out a programme for strengthening the appropriate muscles around the affected joint.

Make sure you deal with any joint injuries promptly. It’s tempting to ignore niggles for fear of interrupting your training, but swift treatment may avoid arthritis later on in life. Try and maintain a healthy weight, too, so as not to put additional pressure on your joints (especially on your hips, knees, and ankles). What’s more, don’t focus all your training on one area of the body, and placing more stress on it as a result — balance is essential to overall physical wellbeing.

It’s also important to take care of your diet. Avoid foods that are known to increase inflammation, such as sugar, trans fats, excessive saturated fats, and alcohol. Omega 3 (found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel), on the other hand, has been shown to potentially reduce some of the effects of certain inflammatory-related arthritic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin are also thought to help contribute to overall knee health management. Pine bark extract is thought to inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes, and some studies suggest it can help reduce the symptoms of arthritis.

You could also consider supplementing your diet. Omega 3 oils have been established in research to have a beneficial effect on sufferers of, and glucosamine and chondroitin also have a strong track record in supporting joint health.

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