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The truth about running and joint stress

A debate has been brewing over the effects of running on the joints. Some argue that excessive running can lead to osteoarthritis. Others believe wear and tear on the knees is not worth the risk.  But is running actually bad for your joints?

Stephen Smith, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon with Piedmont Atlanta Hospital sets the record straight.

“A lot of people think running is inherently bad for your joints,” says Dr. Smith. “But for most people, running may be beneficial in that the rewards from exercise far outweigh any kind of risk involved.”

Running can help prevent obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. Running also increases bone mass and can help stem age-related bone loss.

Running and arthritis

Several studies have shown that there is no connection between running and arthritis.

Researchers at Stanford University conducted a study on 1,000 runners and non-runners for 21 years. Their data found that runners’ knees were no better or worse than non-runners’ knees. They also discovered that runners experienced less physical disabilities and had a 39 percent lower mortality rate than non-runners. 

Another study, which looked at elderly Massachusetts residents, found that the most active people had the same risk of arthritis as the least active. 

“I often see people who have run a lot, and they have bad knee arthritis,” says Dr. Smith.  “And I see people who have never run a day in their life, and they have bad knee arthritis. So I think there are a lot of genetic factors that we have not identified that would explain the incidents of arthritis.”

Common running injuries

Though running doesn’t cause arthritis, it’s not without its perils. Most runners deal with a slight degree of pain throughout their running career.  These injuries range from minor hamstring pulls to serious stress fractures.

“Usually stress fractures are seen in runners who are just picking up the sport and increase their mileage too rapidly,” says Dr. Smith.  “We also see them in well-conditioned athletes who are running extremely long distances, and their boning structure simply cannot tolerate that.”  

Tips to minimize wear and tear

There are steps runners can take to stave off injuries and prevent age-related wear and tear on the joints. Dr. Smith offers the following tips:

  • Run with regularity. Running takes practice. To build endurance, it’s important to run as often as possible.
  • Ease into your running program.  A lot of new runners push themselves too hard and are susceptible to stress fractures. Pace yourself, especially when you are starting out to avoid injuries.
  • Wear proper shoes. It’s important to choose shoes that feel comfortable for your body type.

“Proper shoe wear is extremely important, and I think it’s very personalized,” says Dr. Smith. “The variation in shoe wear that is available today runs the gamut from barefoot running to minimalistic shoe wear, to extremely cushioned and supportive. Some people do better with very minimal support and some people do better with extensive support and cushioning.”  

It’s also helpful to have your gait analyzed by a quality running shop, so they can give you tips on shoe type.

  • Avoid running on uneven surfaces.  Running on uneven surfaces can lead to sprained ankles and joints. If you want to run outside, choose an area with a flat, even surface like the sidewalk or a local track.
  • Seek medical attention for severe pain. If you are experiencing pain that does not respond to rest and decreased mileage, make an appointment with your doctor.

To learn more about Piedmont's orthopedic services, click here.

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