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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.
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.
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:
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.
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. On the other hand, omega 3 (found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel) has been shown to potentially reduce some of the effects of certain inflammatory arthritic conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Pine bark extract is thought to inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes, and some studies suggest it can help reduce the symptoms of arthritis.
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.
See more of Patricia Carswell's work at Girl on the River.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.