Dr. Jackie Whittaker
Research Scientist, Arthritis Research Canada
Around 500,000 youth in Canada injure their knees while playing sports each year. Of those people, 50 percent will develop osteoarthritis (OA) within 10 years. That is a lot of Canadians getting diagnosed with the most common type of arthritis by their 30th birthday. It is estimated that by 2040, 12 million Canadians will be living with osteoarthritis.
Of course, not all people develop osteoarthritis as a result of a sports injury. It’s a degenerative joint condition characterized by the breakdown of cartilage, most often in larger joints like the knee and hip. Contrary to popular belief, osteoarthritis is not a natural consequence of aging. It’s a serious disease that can even cut a person’s life short because it often leads to inactivity, which increases the risk of complications like heart disease.
Despite an incredible amount of research, scientists do not know the exact cause of OA, but they have identified risk factors. These include previous joint injuries, high levels of fat tissue, weak muscles around the hip and knee joints, a genetic predisposition, abnormally shaped joints, and being female.
Osteoarthritis is not caused by weight-bearing activities like running or jumping, or by high-impact sports. In fact, scientists are starting to understand that it can result from less movement since joints and cartilage gain nutrition, in part, through weight-bearing activities.
While the cause of osteoarthritis is unknown, steps can be taken to curb the growing epidemic.
Osteoarthritis prevention is key
Arthritis Research Canada is the leading clinical arthritis research organization in North America and we’re researching and testing unique ways to prevent joint injuries from escalating to osteoarthritis.
For example, our Stop OsteoARthritis program (SOAR), is virtually delivered and aims to help people with a prior knee injury to reduce their risk of developing osteoarthritis after they are discharged from care for that initial injury.
SOAR consists of education, a home-based exercise and physical activity program with tracking and one-on-one physiotherapy counselling. This program is unique because participants co-develop goals with physiotherapists that address priorities they have for their individual physical activity level, sport, and needs.
Hindsight is 20/20
The risk of developing osteoarthritis never goes away. After a joint injury, it’s often unrealistic that people will continue to seek care during the 10-15 year period before osteoarthritis becomes a problem. SOAR gives people the tools to manage their knee health over that period of time to reduce the risk of OA.
“In my clinical practice as a physiotherapist, I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked, ‘Why didn’t someone tell me 20 or 30 years ago that my injury could lead to this disease or explain that I could do something to prevent it?’,” says Dr. Jackie Whittaker, Research Scientist, Arthritis Research Canada.
Osteoarthritis is not just about pain; it is about the ripple effect of that pain – how it can lead to decreased physical activity, weight gain, and life-threatening complications like cardiovascular disease.
Our hope is that SOAR will allow people to be proactive about their knees and overall health. We also want to see research projects like this one prevent the number of osteoarthritis cases in Canada from tripling over the next two decades.