Ski towns are notorious knee-injury hotbeds. If you live in one long enough, chances are high you’ll know at least a handful of people who have undergone surgery to their anterior cruciate or medial collateral ligaments — commonly referred to as the ACL and the MCL.
But are skiing and riding osteoarthritis-creating culprits? Does ripping through mogul fields or hucking cliffs wear your joints out like used ball bearings?
According to Barton Health’s Director of Sports Medicine Jonathan Finnoff, probably not. There’s not a lot of literature specifically on skiing, he said, but other studies have discovered impact sports don’t increase athletes’ chance of arthritis — if they stay injury-free.
“In general, if you participate in high-impact sports you don’t have a higher risk of osteoarthritis. It’s the injury that’s the problem,” Finnoff said.
That’s the tricky caveat. If you hurt your knee riding a heavy line, the likelihood of developing the disease grows.
“Quite a few clinical studies have shown that 50 percent or more of the individuals who suffer a traumatic joint injury — such as an ACL rupture, which is often accompanied by damage to other tissues in the joint — will progress to osteoarthritis within 10 to 15 years, regardless of whether or not they have surgical repair or reconstruction,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Alan Grodzinsky wrote in an email.
Grodzinsky authored a study published in the April edition of the Biophysical Journal that found cartilage, once injured, is at risk during high-impact activities like running or jumping. But the results don’t imply those activities are harmful for a healthy joint, he wrote.
A study found 80 percent of young participants who suffered an ACL tear showed evidence of knee osteoarthritis less than 15 years after the injury. And while the National Ski Areas Association reported a 50 percent decrease in the number of ski injuries since the 1970s, knee injuries still make up a majority of the reported incidents. Current estimates suggest that 12 percent of all osteoarthritis may be caused by joint injury, according to Grodzinsky.
“Since traumatic joint injury can involve very young people, we shouldn’t think of OA as just an ‘old person’s disease,’” he wrote.
The best solution is to avoid injury, Finnoff said. Barring that, Finnoff recommended staying fit and active and practicing balance exercises to train coordination and control the joint.
“The number one key is not getting injured,” he said. “If you have an ACL injury, it doesn’t matter what treatment you do afterwards. The injury itself predisposes you to osteoarthritis.”