Runners often ask orthopedic surgeons involved in sports medicine if running is inherently bad for their knees. If you jog regularly or do some other exercise, you might have the same question. The concern makes sense. Repetitive impact over and over to your bones and joints would seem to have detrimental effects to the bones and articular cartilage of your knees over time. That repetitive impact could lead to arthritis of the knee down the road.
Can we really conclude that physical activity is harmful to the knee?
Running and bone spurs in the knee
It does appear that a relationship exists between physical activity like running and osteophytes, or what you may know as bone spurs. Essentially increased physical activity can increase the presence of these bones spurs in your knee. Bone spurs can cause pain with range of motion, since these are rough edges of bones in a joint.
Physical activity and knee joint space narrowing
One of the hallmarks of arthritis on x-rays is narrowing of the joint space, or the space between the bones. There does not appear to be a relationship between jogging and joint space narrowing. Running or engaging in regular physical activity does not seem to necessarily lead to narrowing of the joint space between the bones of the knee.
Jogging and cartilage damage in the knee
Physical activity actually may be helpful for increasing the volume of the articular cartilage in your knees. It also appears to be associated with fewer articular cartilage defects in your knees. These findings suggest that if you like to jog, can have both the overall health benefits of exercise and prevent arthritis in your knee.
The overwhelming benefits of physical activity
I believe that the benefits of physical activity, including cardiovascular health, weight loss, mental health, and much, much more outweigh any risks of long-term damage to your knees. Even if you do develop arthritis in your knee one day, orthopaedic surgeons can treat it. If you do potentially need a hip or knee replacement later in life, your improved overall physical, mental, and emotional health from regular physical activity could make recovery from those surgeries easier. Plus running and jogging can make you happier and improve your quality of life.
Caution – Talk to your doctor
While it increasingly appears that regular sports and exercise could actually be good for your knees, or at least not as bad for them, as orthopaedic surgeons we struggle to make far-reaching conclusions. There are many patient-specific variables such as your weight, any prior knee injuries or surgeries you have had and more that can affect your risk for arthritis and later knee surgery.
If you like to jog and you know you have cartilage damage in your knee, prior knee injuries, or a history of surgeries, you should consider seeing an orthopaedic surgeon. You can discuss whether running is potentially harmful for you. Even if you cannot run every day, you often can perform non-impact activities, such as cycling, swimming, using an elliptical trainer or lifting weights. These forms of exercise can be mixed in with 2 or 3 days of running to improve your health while still protecting your knee.