Are Swimmers at an Increased Risk for Arthritis?

Do millions of strokes and miles of kicks cause premature arthritis?

athlete with arthritis
Athlete with pain. Getty Images / John Lund/Stephanie Roeser

Swimmers deal with a host of injuries and ailments. One of the most popular being Swimmer’s Shoulder, but sprains, knee injuries, tendonitis, and back trouble all plague swimmers too. After millions of strokes and miles of kicking, are swimmers at an increased risk for arthritis?

What Causes Swimmer Injuries

Swimming injuries are the result of various causes:

  • Overtraining
  • Improper or ineffective dryland programs
  • Poor form and technique
  • Poor nutrition
  • Fatigue

Most Common Swimming Injuries

Right of the bat – Swimmer’s Shoulder is the most common complaint. Swimmer’s Shoulder affects millions of swimmers per year. It is the most common injury among swimmers, but it is not the only one. Additional swimming injuries include breaststroker’s knee, Medial collateral ligament stress syndrome, tendonitis, thoracic outlet syndrome, spondylolysis, and degenerative disc disease.

Do Swimming Injuries Increase Risk for Arthritis?

If you try to look online for arthritis in swimmers, you are going to find thousands of articles about swimming with arthritis, but we want to look at it from a different angle. Overwhelmingly, medical professionals, rehabilitation specialists, and physical therapists all agree that exercise is good for arthritis, but does competitive swimming put swimmers at an increased risk for arthritis? Does it bring on arthritis earlier?

Arthritis is a common condition is the US, but it is not understood as well as many physicians and athletes hope. There are about 100 different types of arthritis conditions, according to the Arthritis Foundation. When physicians or sufferers talk about arthritis, they are referring to pain in the joint or joint disease. Arthritis causes pain, swelling, aching, stiffness, and limited range of motion.

The most common type of arthritis is Osteoarthritis, which is degenerative arthritis. This condition is the result of a loss of bone cartilage. When the cartilage wears away, the bones cannot slide easily over each other. When the cartilage is gone, the bones rub against each other instead. It’s like not having oil in your car to lubricate the moving parts in the engine. This type of arthritis affects only the joints. The older population experiences higher rates of osteoarthritis, but athletes who experienced joint injuries and ACL tears can develop osteoarthritis overtime too.

If we are making the connection between sports injuries and osteoarthritis, then we are likely talking about post-traumatic arthritis. That is what commonly comes to mind when talking about arthritis after experiencing an injury. Now you have a name for it. Post-traumatic arthritis is the wearing out of a joint that has experienced a physical injury. Athletes are no strangers to these types of injuries. Post-traumatic arthritis is the cause of 12% of osteoarthritis cases, affecting 5.6 million people (Cleveland Clinic).

Can Swimmer’s Prevent Post-Traumatic Arthritis?

Athletes cannot prevent post-traumatic arthritis after sustaining an injury. The best way to prevent post-traumatic arthritis is to reduce the risk for injury. For swimmers, reducing the risk for injury goes back to the causes for injury in the first place. Swimmers can reduce injury many ways:

  • Address pain and discomfort immediately. The earlier swimmers acknowledge and care for the pain, the earlier intervention and treatment can occur to prevent chronic and debilitating injuries.
  • Alternate swimming strokes to prevent overuse.
  • Do not avoid the warm-up.
  • Take rest periods.
  • Choose an effective dryland program that strengthens the muscles and prevents injuries.
  • Cool down after every practice or competition.
  • Consider self-soft-tissue mobilization techniques for recovery.
  • Improve muscle activation and timing.
  • Stop when you are in pain.
  • Work with a physical therapist to address and prevent injuries.

How Swimmers Can Manage Post-Traumatic Arthritis

There is no cure for post-traumatic arthritis, but swimmers can take steps to improve range of motion and to eliminate pain. Swimmers must work with their medical professional and physical therapist to develop a non-surgical Osteoarthritis exercise program and pain management plan to address pain and discomfort with post-traumatic arthritis. A pain management plan may include:

  • Strength training
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Over-the-counter or prescription pain management medicines
  • Working other areas when exercising if you are experiencing a flare-up
  • Working the body as a whole

Don’t allow the risk or the pain to scare you out of the pool. Learn to prevent injuries and manage pain so that you don’t have to stop swimming. It is critical that swimmers communicate their pain and their needs with the coaching staff, medical team, and physical therapist.